Fear, Failure And Perfection: Why I Will Never Be A Perfect Parent

05/07/2017 03:07 pm ET Updated May 08, 2017

There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Parents are flawed because they’re human. With a few tragic exceptions, parents don’t set out to harm their children; they love them and they do their best to raise them well. This isn’t really up for debate, and we (parents) know this. We know we will never be perfect parents.

I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to understand my childhood and forgive my parents for their imperfections. Like a lot of Gen-Xers, I’ve sought assistance from a professional therapist from time to time to help me sort through my past, understand the source of my unhealthier motivations and impulses, and ultimately make peace with my parents’ shortcomings.

At the age of 40, I am far from finished, but I’ve come a long way and the process has been constructive and healing. My interpretation of my own history and the role my parents played in it is dynamic and ever-changing with each revision slightly more gentle and gracious than the last. My parents made some mistakes, as all parents do, but I’ve come to appreciate those mistakes as inoculations; low doses of disease that have bolstered my resilience and made me stronger. Some of my greatest strengths as an adult have been born from my parents’ imperfections, essentially redeeming and absolving them.

Despite knowing that no parent is ever perfect, despite my increasingly softened view of my own mom’s and dad’s limitations as parents, and despite the fact that I’ve experienced firsthand that those same limitations shaped me in powerful and important ways that have ultimately served me well as an adult, I am still secretly hoping that, if I try hard enough, I can be a perfect parent.

My kids and me on a recent trip to the waterpark.
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My kids and me on a recent trip to the waterpark.

At first glance, this doesn’t appear to be such a bad thing; arrogant, maybe, but not bad. It’s certainly better than the alternative. Like most parents, I want to maximize my kids’ chances for a healthy, happy life. But I’m beginning to suspect that my desire to be a perfect parent might be ― ironically ― the biggest threat to my kids’ happiness because at the heart of my compulsion to be perfect is fear; fear of failure and fear that my mistakes will be unforgivable and unredeemable.

I already see the influence of my fear in my kids’ lives. This morning, just as we were getting into the car to drive to school, my 5-year-old son burst into an anxious fit of tears when he realized he had forgotten to do his homework. I intentionally turned away from my fear-based impulses and told my son calmly that while I understood he was afraid he’d be in trouble with his teacher, everything was going to be okay, but he was not pacified. I briefly considered letting him learn a lesson about being a responsible student, but since he’s never forgotten to do his homework before, I decided we could be a few minutes late to school so that he could complete his homework. (To be clear, by “late” I mean on the late side of early because part of being a perfect parent means leaving extra time in the mornings for “emergencies” and still getting your kids to school on time.)

My 5-year-old son at the train station during a mother-son trip to the Northwest.
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My 5-year-old son at the train station during a mother-son trip to the Northwest.

Less than 10 minutes later my 8-year-old daughter dissolved into tears of frustration when the fistful of roses she’d cut from our garden for her teacher started falling apart in her hand. One by one, the flowers crumbled and fell, scattering their fragile petals like confetti on the car floor. She finally gave up, tossed the few surviving blossoms aside dejectedly, and left the car with her head down, trying to hide her tears.

My son’s fears were assuaged only when he was allowed to correct his mistake and complete his forgotten homework. My daughter’s distress was abated when I returned to school, fifteen minutes after dropping her off, with a fresh bouquet of roses for her to give to her teacher. (She also seemed genuinely moved by the gesture.)

My 8-year-old daughter.
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My 8-year-old daughter.

If this were not my story, but another parent’s story, I would hold it up as a good example of helicopter parenting from an overly accommodating, enabling mother. But my more typical, fear-based reaction to my son’s forgotten homework assignment and my daughter’s attitude about the roses would have looked very different. I may have allowed my son to complete his homework, but I wouldn’t have been calm about it. In my daughter’s case, the only reason she cut the flowers in the first place was because she had procrastinated making her teacher a card for Teacher Appreciation week. Together, my children would have had to endure my heavy sighs, stern looks of disapproval, and most likely a lecture on work habits and time-management while en route to school. And they would have been getting off easy.

My oldest son, who is eleven, shows similar signs he’s been influenced by my fear of failure. He is a straight-A student, an accomplished young athlete, and a loyal, selfless friend. He is a perfectionistic parent’s dream, but it costs him to be so. I realized just how high a price he is wiling to pay to avoid failing during a family ski vacation this past winter.

Although a new and inexperienced skier, my son’s confidence was growing, as was his appetite for more challenging terrain. On this particular day, we’d spent most of the morning on easy, groomed runs well-suited for the younger children in our group and he was becoming restless. We stole away, just the two of us, and I lead him down a short, but imposing black diamond, heavily pock-marked by moguls. It was the kind of run that made me fall in love with skiing 30 years ago as a kid growing up in Colorado. Since it’s still the kind of run I love - and since I’m now a middle-aged a-hole having a hard time letting go of my youth - I handed my phone to my son and asked him to go ahead of me and shoot a video of me skiing once he reached the bottom of the hill.

Skiing with my older two kids and two of our young buddies. (My 11-year-old is in the middle, third from the left.)
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Skiing with my older two kids and two of our young buddies. (My 11-year-old is in the middle, third from the left.)

We had already skied the run once and he had managed the moguls well that time, so I didn’t think much of sending him down the slope alone, 100 yards ahead of me, the second time around. I watched him traverse the mountain cautiously, but determinedly. Then, he fell. I called out to him, but he didn’t seem to hear me. He had lost his ski when he fell and appeared to be struggling to put it back on. Just about the time I decided to go help him ― pop! ― he got his ski back on and continued down the mountain. “Nice job,” I thought to myself, feeling proud of him. He took two turns, fell again, and lost his ski for the second time. Once again, I called out to him, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Before long, as before, he got his ski back on and he skied to the bottom of the hill, pulling my phone out of his pocket to take a video just like we’d planned.

I descended the mountain, concentrating on my form and hoping I looked good for the video. But when I reached the bottom, I saw that my son’s face was contorted with emotion and covered with blood. He wasn’t badly hurt, but he’d fallen hard enough on his face to cause his nose to bleed and his upper lip to swell. My heart sank. Why didn’t he call for me? Why hadn’t he waved me down and called for help? When I asked him he said, “I wanted to get the video. I wanted to do a good job.”

All three of my kids, mugging for the camera.
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All three of my kids, mugging for the camera.

These stories are deeply humbling because they raise the possibility that my tendency to strive for perfection and, therefore, fear failure is harming my kids. That’s a bitter, jagged pill to swallow.

It’s possible my 5-year-old son has internalized my fears. He may have cried over his forgotten homework assignment because he’s afraid if he fails as a student, it means he’s a failure as a person. It’s possible my daughter believes that it’s better to show up to school empty-handed than it is to bring her teacher a fistful of fallen petals; that sincere effort and good intentions are worthless if the result is anything less than stellar. It’s possible that my oldest son fears I won’t love him unless he takes a video of my old ass skiing down a relatively unimpressive mountain. If I love my kids and want them to become healthy, happy adults (and I do), I have to face these possibilities with an open heart and a willingness to change.

With that said it’s also possible that my kids are driven from within. Not to allow for this possibility would be to give my ego more credit that it deserves. Whether I like it or not, I am not all-powerful and my kids are being influenced by a hundred other forces just as powerful, if not more powerful, as mine. My need to appease my inner critic may have been amplified and contorted by my parents’ mistakes, but I am a born perfectionist. For me to try to be any other way would be a denial and a violation of my true nature. Similarly, although my husband isn’t a perfectionist, he has high standards for himself and for our kids. Add to this the fact that my kids are white, Catholic, and live in an affluent suburb populated by high-achievers, and you have the ideal environment for breeding children who are genetically, culturally, and socially predisposed to exhibit anal-retentive, perfectionistic behavior and an unrealistic aversion to failure.

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Regardless of whether my kids were born believing or taught to believe the lie that perfection is achievable and anything less than perfect is unlovable, there is still hope that my kids can become healthy, happy adults because I am free and empowered to make choices about how I parent. I can choose to give in to my anxiety and teach my kids to fear failure or I can teach them that it’s okay to fall short and be a safe place to land when they do. I can stop judging myself so harshly and show them that my love unconditional and not doled out in direct proportion to their performance by extending the same grace to myself. This is really good news.

The even better news is that I can redefine failure for my children altogether. Recently, I left the corporate world after 18 years of success for a more entrepreneurial venture in which I am constantly failing. My failures - and how I respond to them - are on display and occurring in real time before my children’s very eyes. They have a front row seat to witness my shocking revelation that the world does not come to an end because I fail at something. They love me just as much as they did when I was outwardly successful. My friends still like me and want to spend time with me. My value as a person has remained exactly the same as it was when I was having more success because, as it turns out, failure isn’t just relative and subjective; at the end of the day, failure just isn’t that big of a deal. In fact, failure is bona fide evidence that I’m taking risks, acquiring new skills, and learning valuable lessons. Failure is an inevitable consequence of living fearlessly.

Maybe this view is self-preserving, but I’m hopeful that at least some of it is the genuine and true wisdom that comes from firsthand experience with failure. There is a lot of freedom to be gained from accepting that I will never be a perfect parent. This is a gift I can give to myself. But it’s also a gift I can and want to give to my kids.

Forgiving my parents for their mistakes has been hard, time-consuming, and expensive work, but it’s improved my life and, hopefully, my kids’ will benefit from my work. My children may grow up to resent my mistakes, but I hope they will forgive me, even if it require them to do the same hard, time-consuming, and expensive work I’ve had to do. If my mistakes can inoculate my kids and make them stronger, if my flaws can shape them in powerful and important ways that serve them well as adults, then there is hope that my shortcomings can be redeemed and absolved in my children the way my parents’ mistakes are being redeemed and absolved in me, and that will be a deeper, truer, and more joyful outcome than perfection could ever be.

Easter 2014.
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Easter 2014.
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