My little guy was just weeks old when my parents made the cross-country trip to meet their first grandson. During their visit, I expressed to my dad various brand-new-mama insecurities that I was having. He simply cautioned me, “He’s not going to be perfect.” Perhaps I remember his response so vividly because, at the time, it struck me as a bit of a non sequitur. My anxiety, I thought, was about my own parenting abilities (or lack thereof), not at all about my son.
Since then, I’ve come to recognize how conflated those ideas – whether I’m a “good mother” and whether he’s a “good baby” – actually are. Since my son’s birth, I’ve worried countless times about his seemingly idiosyncratic behaviors. This, I’m sure, is fairly universal among first-time parents. But, strangely, in my mind, any peculiarity I perceived was always caused by me. If anything seemed amiss with him, I wondered what I was doing wrong. Because, of course, my inadequate parenting must be the cause.
In this context, my dad’s statement makes sense. Equating my son’s behavior with my own competence as a mother means that any indication that he’s not “perfect” is a critique of me. And, yes, I want more than anything to be “good at” being his mother. Given my propensity for perfectionism, it’s hard not to feel that I should be a “perfect” mother. (Let’s leave for another day the absurdity of that concept.) And if whether I feel competent as a mother is based upon him – how he behaves, who he is – then my desire to be a “good mother” constrains who he can be. Certainly babies pick up on our subtle cues about what’s acceptable and what’s not. And surely we send subtle cues of which we’re not even aware when our own self worth is tied up with who our children are.
This mindset, in which our own self worth as parents is entangled with our children’s behavior, is, I believe, ironically the cause of much misguided parenting. Rather than responding to our children’s difficult behavior in a loving way, we too often react in an effort to shield ourselves from the judgment of others. We worry about the assessment of our parenting skill being made by the woman in line for checkout at the grocery store, rather than empathizing with our exhausted, tantruming toddlers. We worry about comforting our babies “too much” in the eyes of our mothers-in-law.
But the truth is, my little guy is already his own little person, with his own temperament, strengths, and difficulties. Though certainly the way that I mother him makes a difference in his life, it doesn’t dictate who he is or who he’ll become. That he sometimes resists bedtime, complete with ear-piercing wailing and trashing his little body about, isn’t a reflection of my competence as a mother; that he currently hates to have his diaper changed doesn’t mean I’m doing something “wrong.” Instead, my ability to accept who he is, without feeling threatened myself, even in his most difficult moments, is what’s important. Each moment that I can silence my own self doubt and gently hold space for him to be who he is, to feel what he’s feeling, without shame, is a success.
More than anything, I want to love him unconditionally and accept him fully for who he is – a great challenge, given that I struggle to give myself that kind of unconditional acceptance. But I try to soften my heart, for myself and for him. And if I can string together enough moments where he feels my unconditional love and acceptance, maybe he’ll grow up just a little more secure in who he is, with just a little less self doubt than I have.