Why It Is Hard To Be a Parent

Psychological understanding and information about how to parent have changed and redefined the role of the parent drastically. How to parent is taken seriously by devoted mothers and fathers. Still, there are fundamental aspects of parenting that make it very challenging. Let’s look at how times have changed for parents and children as well as what issues present the same old problems.
      In the 1950s my childhood was ridiculously simple compared to children today who have nearly every moment of their lives planned out. I walked to school in West Hollywood with my twin sister without fear of “wrongdoing” in the neighborhood. Marjorie and I did our homework as we were told. When we did goof off and play instead of being serious we kept this between ourselves. We knew that we were not allowed to be obviously fooling around or complaining. Rude behavior to teachers or parents was not acceptable. We were given new clothes regularly. We had dolls and other toys and books. Electronic stimulation did not exist, though there were movies.
      My parents, although seemingly overprotective, were not psychologically savvy about my emotional need to be different from my twin. Actually, they capitalized on our twinship, perhaps feeling that the extra work of raising twins was in some way compensated by our quasi-celebrity status (in sleepy West Hollywood). As Marjorie and I grew older their indifference to our individuality created serious problems in all areas of our lives.
      I vowed to give my children a better childhood. I paid an enormous amount of attention to their inner worlds. Richard and Elizabeth were treated as unique and important individuals. They attended progressive schools that brought out their curiosity and interests. I was interested in their learning struggles and helped them when they had problems, which they openly shared with me. Unlike my sister and me, they were academically challenged. Countless social situations helped them to learn about who they were. Extras included computers, cars, clothes, and travel experiences.
      While my children were exposed to many different lifestyles they also understood what my limits and expectations for them were. My adult children are more well rounded than me because I gave them a richer childhood. But I was busy and driven to support them financially and to achieve, which provided good role modeling and also a sense of pressure toward perfectionism. I wasn’t calm enough. I wasn’t up on the latest like today’s parents.
      I fell short because I wasn't educated enough about the facts and factors that make for a good parent-child relationship and a healthy childhood. Knowledge about child development and how to parent gives mothers and fathers direction and power. But parenting is not an easy job even with the overwhelming variety of knowledge, consumer products, school options and enrichment activities. The mysteries of parenting can only be solved in the moment of parent-child interactional stress, like the following story suggests.
      Rachel, a smart and outgoing three-year-old, bit her twin brother at preschool. Lila, the director, called Mom at work and reported that Rachel would have to stay home from school for an entire day if her behavior recurred. Mom, with her husband’s help, had to decide how much importance she was going to place on Rachel’s transgression. Should they pressure their daughter to be perfectly behaved or should they write off her aggressive behavior as age appropriate? There is no prescription for this kind of incident. But Rachel’s parents look into themselves for an answer and decide to go easy on the consequences.
      Parenting is a hands-on perpetual motion experience. You cannot avoid this reality. It is hard to be a Dad or Mom because drawing a clear emotional line between you and your child is extremely difficult and tricky. From conception, fathers and mothers have fantasies and expectations for their child. Parents, whether they know it or not or will admit it or not, want to give their child what they did not get from their own parents. Countless examples come to my mind, such as parents who were very poor as children and want to give their own children the luxury of financial stability. Children who are living for their parents get what their mother and father did not receive, but Mom and Dad might be left with resentments because they deprived themselves.
      Positive and negative aspects of this psychological phenomena of identification (seeing yourself in your child’s eyes) come rushing into my thoughts. A basic of amount of attention for your child can never be harmful. And yet, over-attention, hypervigilance and indulgence can be as harmful to the family as ignorance and neglect. Why is it so hard to decide when enough is enough? Why do parents have a hard time saying no? Identification between parent and child begins at birth as the parent reacts to their infant’s need for comfort and care. Mom and Dad see what is necessary for their newborn to thrive. Then, parents do more. They think about what it means to be a mother or father. Parents project onto their infant what they did not get. They plan, hope, worry, overdo, ignore, dismiss, and seek out advice and help.
      While feeding and changing their growing baby and shopping and saying no in just the correct fashion, many decisions are made. The baby grows into a toddler and into childhood and takes in all that he or she is served with, including the family’s values about the meaning of life. Beautiful parents might hold high regard for aesthetic perfection and lead their children to seek out the most attractive options in life. Rich parents give their children the tools of how to make money. Smart fathers and mothers value education and the power of the intellect, often forgetting the practical or hands-on. Creative parents value artistic production above all else. The child learns through direct interventions and osmosis what is important to Mom and Dad.
      Fortunately, the child is not a clone of Mom and Dad and responds in his or her own way to their gifts of direction and vision. Although parents want their sons and daughters to embrace their wisdom, it is expectable and understandable when they rebel against the family’s unstated and clearly expressed expectations. The assertive attorney values cutthroat decision making, yet her daughter has a softer personality and is overwhelmed by her mother’s edgy expectations. She wants to be a poet. The religious zealot has a son who wants to be a baseball player. The ballerina’s daughter becomes an accountant. Only with time do parents learn to deal with their children’s unique choices.
      Hopefully, parents will come to know their children for who they are and embrace how they are different. What is really helpful in drawing the line between what is best for your child and what you think is best is an awareness of how your child is different from you and your spouse. You might ask yourself these questions:
     •In what ways am I different from my child?
     •How is my child different from my spouse?
     •What parts of our identities are similar?

Answering these questions will help you to understand if you are giving to yourself or if you are giving to your child. It follows that you will better understand when it is appropriate to say yes and when no is the better answer. Parents need to decide in a very practical way what their child needs. Given the abundance of consumer products and services for parents and children, the decisions may seem overwhelming. The most reverberating truth from child development theory indicates that positive attachments between parent and child are the cornerstone of a well developed personality and good self-esteem. Attuned mothers and fathers try very hard to connect with their child in an organic balanced way. Making wise decisions about how to parent is essential, even though there is no one right answer. What is good for one child and family may be totally inappropriate for another.
      Here are some more questions that may help you make guilt free decisions. The answers will point out your motivations.
     •Are my decisions about early childhood care for my child just a reaction to what went wrong in my growing years?
     •Have I thought my decisions through and consulted with my partner?
     •Am I spending money I don’t have to keep up with the neighbors or to show off?
     •Have I lost sight of my own separate life and that of my spouse?

A social network is crucial because it gives parents a perspective on their decision making—a third eye on important child rearing issues. Contemporary parents are at a disadvantage when it comes to a social structure beyond the immediate family. The extended family was always helpful to parents who had a hard time saying no. Relatives available for hands-on child care were able to give good feedback to a mother or father who was having problems setting limits for their kids.
      The days of casual neighborhood play dates and dropping in unexpectedly on relatives are gone. Life is brutally planned to fit into Mom and Dad’s work schedule. Finding practical, safe and reliable child care is stressful in itself.
      My best advice on developing a social network is to follow your own intuitive sense of the issues that arise. This does not mean worrying or obsessing. Put your concerns into perspective. There is no way around the reality that no school, babysitter, nanny, day care, grandparent or spouse is going to follow your directions perfectly. Establish realistic expectations for people who help you out. Think about these issues:
     •Am I carefully working on developing a support system for my family?
     •Do I make an effort to see our friends and family?
     •Do I have my own good friends with similar problems whom I can rely on for support and advice?
     •Do I have enough household help that I am not too exhausted to make more serious decisions?
     •Are my expectations for teachers, friends, and babysitters realistic?

Try your hardest to differentiate yourself and separate yourself emotionally from your child. Look at your child as a unique individual who is a composite of you and your spouse’s genetic endowments living in a nurturing environment very different than what you probably experienced. Make your child’s home life optimal for your child, not a re-creation with a better ending of your growing years.
      It’s hard to be a father or mother for all the obvious physical and monetary reasons. Emotional reasons hidden from view make decisions about what to give your children very difficult. Look at your motivation. Parenting is so piercingly hard because it requires you to be objective about highly subjective issues, all the stuff that is so close to your heart.
      The hardest part of parenting is separating yourself from your child. The recipe for success when drawing this ever changing line involves mixing your own self knowledge with the opinions of respected others who know you well. (This list does not include the hairdresser, your neighbor who is jealous of you or even the teacher who can’t relate to your child.)
      Boldly make your own choices. Re-evaluate when necessary.