By Danielle Peters,
Marriage and Family Therapist
March 23, 2022
How to get over unhelpful parenting expectations
Before we became parents we had an idea in our minds of what we would look like as parents. Often this idea was based on images from the media, social media, what our friends’ families looked like, and what we remember of our family and our own childhood. We often idealize what it means to be a parent and what that will look like. Images of well groomed, well rested women and men holding a newborn in a spotless house with their partner looking lovingly over their shoulder, float through our heads as we think about what parenthood will be like.
Other images where a smiling child walks hand in hand with their parents into the sunset come to mind as well. Or smiling happy faces doing some amazing activity at a theme park. We have this idea that we will be calm and nice all the time and will very rarely have to do things like time out or grounding. We have this expectation that our child will also be calm and well behaved and no matter how many stories we hear we are pretty sure we will never have to worry about telling our child not to lick the dog or chew on the remote. We expect that parenting will come easy with some minor challenges and reality is often a big surprise that makes you feel like everyone else knows something that you don’t.
We live in a world where it seems like we have instant access to what is going on in other people’s lives and to a constant information flow that can answer any question we might have immediately even if the answer is not helpful or you didn’t even ask the question. In our brains we all know that those images we see on social media are not the whole truth and sometimes are full on staged. At the best they are just a moment in time that we all have where everyone is happy and at the worst they are created to project an image of something that never existed.
Also the information we find online, if it is well researched information, is the best case scenario created in a lab, and the researchers know that it isn’t something that is going to happen 100% of the time but they don’t say that. Other “information” is just an opinion given by someone who may not even have kids or hasn’t had kids in 20 years and really doesn’t understand what it is like to have children anymore. But our hearts or the emotional parts of our brains don’t understand that. That part of our brain sees those images and uses them to be hard on ourselves, uses them to tell us that we aren’t good enough for our children. Often this reinforces a part of us that is scared we aren’t cut out to be a parent after all.
These images can cause us to be less connected and present with our child because we are so worried about having the perfect house that isn’t cluttered with toys or stuck in our heads about what we aren’t doing right. It can cause us to be harder on our kids than we mean to be because we expect them to behave the way we think other people’s kids do when those expectations aren’t realistic. It can cause outings to be harder than they should be because we expect them to be more fun than they actually are and expect everyone to enjoy every minute of it and when these things don’t happen we are crushed. These expectations can cause feelings of anxiety and depression because they aren’t realistic, but part of you thinks that you should be able to meet them.
Parenting is hard enough as it is
without having to feel like you and your children
have to meet unrealistic expectations.
Here are some ways to keep yourself out of that trap:
1. Develop real relationships with other parents who will be honest with you
This may look like reconnecting with old friends who have had kids as well, joining a playgroup, or talking to the other parents when you pick up or drop your child off at school. Since we are still in the pandemic it might look like joining a group of parents that meet for a coffee date online. In other situations it might look like starting a play group for kids your child’s age that meets at a local park. The important thing is that you find parents that you connect with where both of you can be honest about both the joys and the struggles of being a parent.
Developing a relationship where you can be honest about the fact that you took a broom the other day and just swept all the toys into a box and stuffed the box in the closet is important. It gives you a chance to hear someone say “hey I do that all the time”. If you are just starting these relationships be patient because it may take a while for the two of you to get to that point but it is worth it to find someone who can be honest with you and that you can be honest with as well.
2. Give yourself credit for what you do and what you do well
Another thing that can really help is to recognizing the things that you do versus comparing yourself to what it looks like others do. So if you got the dishes done and got outside for some exercise with the kids that day it is important to give yourself credit for it. If you got all of the homework done this afternoon quickly with very little fuss and absolutely no tears that’s a win! Really try to focus on what you have been doing instead of what you aren’t doing.
-In this same vein give yourself credit for the things that you do well.-
Even if your house is a disaster all the time, maybe you are really good at inspiring creativity in your child. Maybe you could improve when it comes to sitting and doing pretend play with your child, but you sit down and read with them a couple times a week. Instead of focusing on what you should be doing or what you think others are doing, focus on “what do I do well?”. If you can’t come up with something you do well on your own, ask your partner, a family member, or maybe even your child.
3. Enjoy quality time with your child
Taking some time to just be present and enjoy your relationship with your child can really help to relieve some of the pressure that these expectations can put on you. When the two of you manage to have a good interaction and you can appreciate what you do have, it is much easier to recognize that the way things are is okay.
4. Recognize that parenting is hard for everyone and that different parents have different priorities
Parenting is a difficult journey and anyone who tells you that it isn’t at least frustrating some of the time is lying to you. Give yourself permission to recognize that this journey is exhausting on all levels. So it makes sense if you are exhausted, even if you are “just” a stay at home parent or you have help from other people. The work that you do every day is a lot and it is okay to feel the way that you do.
The other part of this is recognizing that when you do look at a friend and they do something better than you do, it doesn’t mean that they are better than you at this parenting thing. It just might mean that they have different priorities than you do. If someone’s house is cleaner than yours, maybe for them the mess makes them stressed so they have to prioritize cleaning over sleep. Maybe you hear that they take their child to the library every week, but don’t realize that they do that instead of doing weekly swim lessons.
-Give yourself credit for the decisions that you have made and the things that are important to you and your family.-
5. Learn to be okay with the idea of “good enough”
So when it comes to the research around parenting, a concept that doesn’t make it into the media is the idea of “good enough” parenting. Often when it comes to research they are able to come up with the parenting styles and tricks that benefit children the most. But what they don’t often tell you is that yes, it would be awesome if you could validate your child’s feelings all of the time, but they also recognize that what works well in a lab does not work all the time in real life. So what you are trying for is “Good enough”, which basically means that the relationship doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s okay that you have off days here and there as long as you are trying. It’s more important for your kids to see that you are trying but make mistakes (and handle them well) than it is for them to see you doing things perfectly.
6. Get off social media
I’m sure that you knew that this one was coming. Social media provides shallow relationships that often can be more focused on what other people want you to think of them versus what reality is. You are surrounded online by curated images of what people want their lives to look like, not what their lives looks like in reality. You see the good moments and just glimpses of the struggles. When this is all you see, especially with the limited face to face interactions we’ve had since the pandemic started, it’s harder to convince ourselves that what our lives look like is normal.
7. Recognize you can’t do this alone
The saying it takes a village to raise a child did not just come from nowhere. In the past children were raised in homes with multiple generations alongside cousins and family members that provided support to the nuclear family in many ways. Asking yourself to keep the house, take care of the kids, contribute to the family financially, and maintain your relationship with your partner is a lot of expectations and it isn’t possible to do it all well or even to do everything that all of those roles imply. If you can find some way to, get some help. Maybe it’s asking a grandparent to come sit with the kids so that you can get the dishes done or even just hiring a cleaner to come and help with the house or a gardener to help with the yard.
If you are already feeling like you have passed the point of just being hard on yourself and the feelings you are having about being a parent are turning into or already are anxiety and/or depression, reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional to be evaluated for anxiety and depression. Whether or not they do decide to treat you for anxiety or depression, find a therapist to get some help around the difficult journey that is parenting. And know that no matter what you see in others’ lives you are not alone in this struggle.
Click here to download a guide on how to calm down quickly as a busy mom so that you can feel more peaceful and confident about your parenting. You’ll also learn about groups and other resources that can support you.
About the author
Danielle Peters is a Licensed Marriage Therapist in Roseville who helps parents of kids with complex medical needs and those who are neurodivergent in her (mostly) online practice so that they can enjoy their life and be present with their child. She helps parents find confidence and joy even when things are different and harder than you thought they would be. She see’s client’s both individually and runs groups for both parents of neurodivergent kids and for parents of kids who are struggling with their mental health. For more information on how to get support from Danielle, go to www.DanielleLMFT.com.