"Why are you so obsessed with labor?" my mother asked me half way into my pregnancy.
"Do you really need to be watching all these baby delivery shows? They'll just make you panic," she commented on a different occasion.
"Don't you think you should read books about how to raise a child and not just how to push one out?" she persisted with no sign of giving up.
No, my mom is not Crazy Jewish Mom, but she definitely was "Panicked About To Be Grand-Mom."
Indeed, a few days after a labor that no TV-show or book could have prepared me for, my husband and I brought a tiny new person back home with us and I felt something I had never expected to feel.
Wasn't parenting supposed to be something hardwired and instinctual?
Yet, here I was questioning myself and wondering if I was doing things the way I "should" be doing them.
So a week later, I went to our local bookstore -- not the flagship, just the local neighborhood bookstore -- hoping to find some relief from my panic.
Instead, I saw this:
Even more panic!
If there was this much information on raising kids, didn't that mean there was so much I did not know?
On one level, I wanted to buy every book on the shelf to ensure I gave my daughter every advantage in the world. On another level, however, I had a gut-feeling that this was not the right thing to do. I knew that parenting today was a panic-inducing anxiety-provoking competition. I knew that many studies had found people with children to be less happy than those without, or worse, found that interacting with our children is way down the list of preferred daily activities only slightly above working, commuting, or interacting with our bosses.
Optimistically biased, as most of us are, I nonetheless convinced myself that I would be the exception. So I bought several books and with a pen, highlighter, and some Post-its, spent the following year trying to conquer motherhood.
I had this!
Except, I did not.
In fact, the exercise just made me realize that our generation is farther away from "getting it" than any other generation has ever been.
Even though my daughter is still just a toddler, I see what parenting is evolving into for older children and I am scared of what lies ahead.
I am scared because even though we have more knowledge, we are letting go of our judgement.
1. We are forgetting that parenting is a role we play not a race we run
From birth (Oh! He's still not sitting up?) to preschool (She is still not talking in sentences?) to elementary school (He's not in the advanced reading group?!) to high school (Oh my God! She didn't get into Harvard?), parenting has become about winning, coming out on top, and showing that you are the best.
Children, rather than being respected as humans in their own right with differing interests and abilities, are now seen as proxies for a parent's success, where success is so narrowly defined. We are all working towards creating "successful" children that we sometimes don't realize how stifling this pressure can be.
In fact, the biggest predictor of life satisfaction is not success. It is our social relationships! Now, the quality of those relationships and our ability to build them is a function of our ability to empathize. For this, and other evolutionary reasons, children were meant to be raised in tribes, in settings where they could enjoy open-ended playtime with each other and learn socialization, creativity, and empathy.
So how can we expect to raise happy children today when we schedule every minute of their day and then ingrain in them the belief that their worth is a function of how much better they are than someone else?
Just as worrying, however, is that if we catch ourselves not pushing our children to their limits and encouraging them to be the best at everything, we think that we are not being good enough parents. We question if we are depriving our children of some advantage or diminishing their chances of success, and we end up making decisions out of anxiety and guilt.
2. We are letting guilt rob us of the joy and true purpose of parenting
If I wrote down a "Guilty-About" instead of "To-Do" list every day, I would have over 50 items by the evening. Every thing I have ever read or heard about raising children haunts me as I'm in the middle of doing something with my daughter.
- Did I just give her juice? That's it -- her teeth will rot when she is 70!
- She's watching a music video so I can cook? I'm a horrible mother; she will not speak before the age of 4 now!
- I'm not signing her up for music lessons and gymnastics at 1 year? There goes her chance of getting into an Ivy League school!
If these sound familiar, you are not alone. Being a first time parent is not easy. On top of that, we have a deluge of information telling us about all the different things we "should" and "should not" do to raise happy and successful (read: cookie cutter) kids, that it's only natural to constantly feel guilty when we are not able to follow every rule in the book.
So we compete, because this way we have a reference point on how well we are doing as parents. If our children are doing better than someone else's, then we think we must be doing our job well.
The truth is, however, this competitive race is doing more harm than good to our children. While wanting the best for our children and encouraging them to reach their full potential can be good for their development, there is a big difference between an enriched, happy childhood and an over-scheduled, anxious one. There is an even bigger difference between wanting what's best for our children and wanting them to be the best.
Sadly, even if we know this, we still feel guilty when we observe other parents running this "rat race" with their children. In part because of the nature of competitive parenting, but also because of our own expectations and the bars we set for ourselves.
3. We are setting too high expectations of our children and ourselves
We don't know what it means to be a parent anymore because we no longer have children out of social norms and expectations nor do we have children to function as economic assets who work for us. Having children today is a choice, or in the words of one sociologist, our "children today are economically useless but emotionally priceless".
Naturally, when we attach this much weight to having children, the more expectations we have. We start to look at our children as projects to be perfected. We put them on the nursery waitlist before they're born. We sign them up for every kind of class imaginable. We get them involved in music and sports. We tutor them outside class -- not because they need it -- but because we want them to be ahead of everyone else. Even their free time, we use for "organized activities."
We forget that what they need is the freedom to be children, to be curious, to be sheltered from the worries of adult life - even if for a little while. We ignore the fact that the myths about needing to go to the best nursery, have the best grades, extracurricular activities, and community service in order to succeed academically are largely unfounded. In fact, the only thing hyper parenting has been shown to do is lead to depression and its destructive side effects in adolescents.
Funnily, when parents are confronted with the downsides of this competitive and anxious nature of parenting, the most common response is:
"But I just want my child to be happy!"
While happiness is something we all seek, it is an elusive and difficult goal. Happiness cannot be taught or pursued -- it has no curriculum. Happiness can only ensue as the side effect of other things, and these things are different for each individual.
Winning a Nobel prize or an Oscar? Becoming the CEO of big company or a wealthy entrepreneur? Getting elected the next president or secretary general? None of these can guarantee happiness for every single person. That is why we can't expect to have one route for our children to take, or one definition for "success" and "happiness."
Happiness and success, then, are perhaps the biggest and most unfair expectations we place on ourselves, and more importantly on our children. Maybe the best thing we can do for our children is to accept them as they are, and support them as they grow into the people they are destined to become.
It makes more sense that our role as parents is to be there for our children, to protect them, to offer guidance, and to love them unconditionally. If we followed our hearts and instincts, instead of books and others' cues, if we played our role of parents and mentors instead of competitors and personal assistants, is it not possible that things like success and happiness would take care of themselves?
Today I have decided to shelve away my parenting books and to make a promise.
I promise my daughter that I will do everything in my power to protect her. I also vow to encourage her to grow into the person she is destined to become without pushing her past her limits.
I pray that I will keep that promise, that I will never be part of the competitive parenting race, that I will enjoy her company instead of focusing on how guilty I feel, and that I will not set unrealistic expectation for her or for myself.
I pray that the look of fascination in her eyes and the happiness in her smile stay with her for the rest of her life; and I pray that whatever she decides to do with that life, whenever she comes to me, she finds me...
Loving her... no matter what.
Until that time, our little book shelf will belong to her books instead of mine!