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The ‘not good enough’ parent

Clare Flaxen by Natalya Chagrin
Clare Flaxen by Natalya Chagrin

by Clare Flaxen

‘I’m no good at this. Everyone else has it all figured out except me.
‘Why am I the only one struggling?
‘It’s always my kids who misbehave – it must be my fault.
‘Good mums know what they’re doing and I have no clue.

Have you ever felt like this? These are all things mums have said during sessions with me. These feelings are so common, but we don’t often talk about them openly. Fear of being judged and shame at what we believe are our shortcomings tend to keep us quiet. It’s easy to get stuck in the spiral of believing you’re the only one finding parenting difficult, to start blaming yourself and think that you’re not doing a good enough job.

Raising children is nothing if not unpredictable. It’s full of grey areas. You may know rationally that there’s often no right or wrong way to do things, but you still have the nagging feeling that what you’re doing is wrong.

What’s usually going on when you start to feel you’re failing as a parent links in to the thoughts and beliefs you’re holding about being good enough. The fear of not being good enough and the feelings that go with it (anxiety, shame, lack of confidence, guilt, to name a few) can get supersized once you become a parent. Why does this happen? Well, parenthood makes you vulnerable. You’re responsible for this person you’ve created and the stakes can suddenly seem so high if you were to get things wrong. The love you feel is intense and it drives you to want to be the best parent you can be. It’s natural to feel this way.

It can be a tricky combination though: no rule book for raising kids versus the absolute need to get it ‘right’; uncertainty in what you’re doing versus countless examples of other people parenting in different ways around you. No to mention a library of books about parenting all giving contradictory advice. Doubt and lack of confidence can lead to a belief that you’re messing things up (and that this is catastrophic).

For your internal dialogue that chatters away in the background of your mind, it can become a minefield. We all have that internal voice. For some of us, it’s more visual and we play out mini movies in our minds of situations and scenarios. Often it’s helpful, giving us feedback and information about what’s going on around us. We rehash the past and rehearse the future. We take our past experiences or messages about ourselves we’ve internalised over the years and play them out in the here and now. It’s when your perceptions get skewed or your internal voice becomes your internal critic that problems can start with feeling ‘not good enough.’ 

How many times have you compared yourself to another parent and felt lacking? How often have you worried that because the bedtime routine isn’t perfect, your kids aren’t great eaters or they’re not doing a multitude of extra curricular activities, you’re therefore failing them and not doing a good enough job? How hard does guilt hit you when you’re trying to juggle that elusive work/life balance and something has to give?

When the automatic thoughts and beliefs in your mind are operating from a place that’s not based in the reality of what’s actually going on, you can start to believe things about yourself or the situation you’re in that aren’t necessarily true. You see things through a filter and that filter reinforces the things you’re fearing – that you’re not good enough.

We all come into parenthood with a model of what we think it will be like and what we should be doing in our role as parent. It might be based on our own experiences of family life or taken from things we see around us. When reality doesn’t match up with the idealised, fantasy version, we internalise it and think that we’re to blame and we’re getting it wrong.

The thing that perhaps trips us up the most is when we confuse ‘not perfect’ with ‘not good enough.’ You aim to be the perfect parent and when you inevitably can’t reach that, you think you’re a terrible parent. You reinforce this by believing that others are managing much better than you (spoiler: they’re usually not). You filter the information around you and only pay attention to the bits that fit with the story you’re telling yourself about being not good enough.

The more it’s reinforced by the perceptions you’ve adopted, the more you believe that you are in fact not good enough. 

It’s not your fault that this is happening – it’s all running on autopilot in your mind. The good news is that there are some things you can do to stop this spiral of ‘not good enough’ from taking hold.

Ask yourself what your image of parenting is

Try writing down what you’re basing your idea of a perfect parent on. Then write down what you think a good parent does. What feels more attainable and more realistic to you? Ask yourself, what’s wrong with aiming for good?

Go easier on yourself

None of us get things right all the time. None of us know what we’re doing all the time. And none of us are perfect parents. So be a bit kinder to yourself when you’re being self-critical. A little self-compassion goes a long way to helping you believe that you are good enough, flaws and all. 

Listen

Start tuning in to what’s going on inside your head, especially in those moments when you feel anxious, upset or like you’re the worst parent ever. What are you telling yourself? Start to question it. Is it really true or could there be another possible explanation?

Look out for perfect

Notice the times when you’re confusing ‘not perfect’ with ‘not good enough.’ Notice when you’ve set perfect as your benchmark for success. Look at the meanings you’re giving certain situations or outcomes. If your child’s sleep isn’t perfect, does that really mean it’s awful and you’re failing? If you don’t get things 100% all the time does that mean it’s the other end of the scale and you’re a terrible parent? Or is there room for us to operate somewhere in the middle ground and for that to be good enough? Look out for those all-or-nothing patterns of thinking and the times you magnify or catastrophise what might happen.

Clare is a cognitive behavioural therapist and wellbeing expert. You can find out more about her work at www.clareflaxen.com

THIS PIECE WAS REVIEWED BY dr emma svanberg AND EDITED BY ANNA CEESAY & claire gillespie.

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