John Irving wrote in “A Widow for One Year” that having children taught him how to fear. I think that this statement is a profoundly true assessment of the way in which parenthood can throw into high relief the uncertainties and unpredictability of life. Because, above all, our lives are uncertain, built on things that we have little control over. On your way home from work today, you could be in a terrible car accident that leaves you in chronic pain for the rest of your life. Your husband could be having an affair. Cancer could be lurking inside of your cells, eating its way through the healthy fabric of your body so insidiously that by the time you notice that something is wrong, it is too late. Your best friend could be talking about you behind your back.
John Irving wrote in “A Widow for One Year” that having children taught him how to fear. I think that this statement is a profoundly true assessment of the way in which parenthood can throw into high relief the uncertainties and unpredictability of life. Because, above all, our lives are uncertain, built on things that we have little control over. On your way home from work today, you could be in a terrible car accident that leaves you in chronic pain for the rest of your life. Your husband could be having an affair. Cancer could be lurking inside of your cells, eating its way through the healthy fabric of your body so insidiously that by the time you notice that something is wrong, it is too late. Your best friend could be talking about you behind your back. Sure, you can drive carefully, and take good care of your marriage, and eat healthy foods, and exercise, and treat your friends as you would like to be treated. But still – bad things can happen, and they do happen, regardless of how well we try to live our lives. Most of the time, we do a pretty good job of ignoring this. But when our kids come into this world – vulnerable, fragile, unable to defend themselves from predators and West Nile Virus and mean kids on the playground – that basic uncertainty of life suddenly comes into sharp focus.
So we are left in a difficult situation – we want so fiercely to keep our children happy, and healthy, and to give them a good solid education, and to make sure that they don’t turn out to be psychopaths, school shooters, or one of the Koch brothers. But on some level, we know that it is an uncertain world, one that we cannot control. And of course, the more things seem uncontrollable, the more we struggle to gain agency, to influence those things that we can control. And in the course of this struggle, sometimes we choose to exchange one kind of anxiety – that generated by uncertainty – for another – that generated by overestimating the impact that our small choices have on our children’s lives. Magazines and online groups that are aimed at mothers “sell” in large part due to this latter type of anxiety – and in that process, they create a fertile breeding ground for feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
The other day, on a rare solo trip to Target, I stood in a long line at the checkout and began to flip through a widely circulated magazine aimed at mothers of young children. The Table of Contents included the following titles: “Is your child safe in the car? The safety mistake that 85% of parents make;” “4 bad habits every parent needs to break;” and “school-bus safety – keep kids safe en route.” Yikes.
Don’t get me wrong – I obviously think that car and school bus safety are an important issue, and that solid parenting skills make for happier families. But the article’s titles, and their implications (you must break this habit or…your kid will be damaged! You must not make this car safety mistake or…your child will die!”), as well as their wide reach (I am responsible for school bus safety now too?!) left me feeling a bit sweaty.
That same magazine featured articles called “hide the baby weight,” “stop wardrobe battles,” “classroom confidential – what the staff wishes you knew,” “20 creative lunch ideas,” “Sadder-day – ditch stress-fests for more rest,” “flawless red lips,” “goody bag – what you must have, must see, and must do this month,” and “knock out the germs they bring home.” I am no advertising genius, but I believe that the underlying message is that it is my responsibility to make sure that my little ones are well-dressed, well-rounded kids with busy social calendars who never have a cold, own all of the right stuff, and bring stylish little bento boxes filled with healthy goodies to a school where all of the staff loves them. And I need to do so while being relaxed (nobody likes to spend a Sadder-day with a stressed out mommy!) and svelte (or at least, svelte-looking) with flawless red lips. Of course, most people are fairly far from that ideal – but that ideal, or at least hope of attaining that ideal, is for sale. All you must do is buy the magazine, and the goods presented in its many, many ads.
The other interesting thing about these magazines is the startling lack of daddies (in this particular magazine, I found one single picture of a dad – and he was hanging out and relaxing with the mom). The implicit message, then, is that it is your job alone to take care of your kids (why this is remains unclear – are dads just too doofy to be trusted to do it “right?” or is there a collective sense of giving up, a sense that it is pointless to involve the dad because he is more interested in football and beer than in his kids? Whatever the reason may be, I find the lack of visibly involved fathers to be a problem, because our perceptions shape our expectations, and we tend to get from our partners what we expect from them. But that is an entirely different blog post altogether). This absence of fathers (and partners, and grandparents, and aunties, and friends) is especially problematic because it wrongly implies that mothers should be able to skillfully juggle all of the millions of little tasks inherent in childrearing (both the important ones like car-seat safety, and the more…um…frivolous ones, like fancy school lunches) without asking for help. Thus, needing help (regardless of whether we actually ask for it) becomes an admittance of defeat – and another source of shame and guilt.
In my work, I find that many mothers turn to online “mommy” groups and forums in order to relieve some of the anxiety that is produced by these pervasive messages. Of course, online advice and help given by other mothers can be an invaluable source of social support in a world that increasingly relies on the internet and social media for connection. However, in my experience, it is important to take that advice with a shaker of salt. In the context of these groups and forums, people tend (unwittingly, and certainly not maliciously) to stoke each other’s anxieties, and to be terribly dogmatic about their own parenting choices (because if I believe that my child’s health and happiness is predicated on my parenting behavior, then validating a parenting choice that is very different from my own is a dangerous thing to do). Basic social science research shows us that group discussion actually causes attitudes to polarize, meaning that the more we discuss our choices (and try to justify them), the more rigid we become about defending them, and the less inclined to see another person’s point of view. So, participating in such group discussions can actually leave people feeling more unsure of the choices that they have yet to make, and more guilty about the choices that they have already made.
But is any of this guilt necessary? In other words, do all of the little things that mothers do out of guilt make their children happier people?
Actually, the answer is no. Children’s developmental trajectories are determined by two things: nature (genetics and biology) and nurture (environmental influences – note that these influences have to do with a child’s whole world, including culture, family, school, friends, society, and yes, you). On the nurture end, the best thing that a parent can do is to provide a child with a solid and secure attachment relationship (secure attachment being defined as a caregiver-child relationship in which the child experiences the caregiver as a consistent and responsive person who can be both a secure base and a safe haven). And being such a person is easier than one might think – the magic number hovers somewhere around 20%. This means that, as long as a caregiver responds sensitively to a child’s needs approximately 20% of the time, the attachment relationship between caregiver and child will be just as healthy and solid as if the caregiver responded sensitively 90% of the time.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the parenting choices we make don’t matter – our choices are still important in that they create different kinds of family environments, and some will be more pleasant to grow up in than others (in short, don’t be a jerk - you do want to be the kind of person your kids would still want to be around if they had a say in the matter). What it does mean, and this is important, is that as long as you aren’t abusing your kids, or checked out of their development because you are too wrapped up in your own pain to give even those 20%, then you aren’t damaging them, even if you feed them food that could survive a nuclear incident, or never ever play Barbies, or forget to check their homework, or don’t chaperone a single one of their field trips.
In one sense, that magic 20% can be a relief, because it certainly puts things into perspective – parenting isn’t this life-or-death, all-or-nothing, one-wrong-step-and-you’re-doomed danger zone. In another sense, that magic 20% can be kind of scary, because it highlights the fact that we have way, way less control over our children’s psychological development than we might like to think. But I think that lack of control is okay, actually. Because while we build our lives on things that we have no control over, our happiness is built on how we choose to respond to those things that we have no control over.
I wonder what it would feel like to experiment with feeling okay with uncertainty and uncontrollability. I wonder what it would feel like to let go of some of that need to control and predict. I wonder what it would feel like to think about where that little voice in your head – you know, the one that tells you what you should do – came from, and whether or not you will choose to listen to it today. Who knows – it might ease some of the pressure. And when the pressure goes, it might take some of the guilt with it.
About Dr. Mirjam Quinn
Dr. Mirjam Quinn loves her husband, her kids, reading, drawing, yoga, concerts, her job, and heated arguments, and she would be ecstatic if someone would invent a laundry folding machine already. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Purdue University in 2007, and has been practicing independently as a licensed clinical psychologist since 2008. She has a private psychology practice in Oak Lawn, where she sees children, adolescents, and adults who are coping with anxiety, depression, AD/HD, and life transitions (such as becoming a parent). In addition, she runs a community clinic located in Blue Island, where individuals who are uninsured and underinsured can receive therapy for $2 per session.
For more information about Dr. Quinn or her practice, visit Southwest Psychological Care.