Yesterday, a dear friend told me she felt like a failure as a parent.
The thing is, I’ve had a front row seat to her parenting. She has sacrificed everything – her life, her body, her independence, and her career aspirations – dedicating her entire existence to raising her boys. She delved into books on parenting, actively participated in conferences, clubs, and events to learn more about nurturing them according to the highest values. I witnessed her discipline them gently yet firmly, never resorting to physical violence. Her kindness and tenderness were evident when she cradled them when they were hurt. I admired how she transformed herself into a staunch and fearless advocate for her neurodivergent kids throughout their schooling.
My friend’s commitment to her boys’ needs was unmistakable. She did everything “right.” Yet here she was, looking back on her life and deciding she somehow failed because she couldn’t control the outcome like she’s expected to. Where did the distortion come from?
Women bear these unfair expectations, these burdens of parenthood, and suffer inhumane conditions in motherhood. Our husbands often serve as ambassadors of this burden: the armchair quarterbacks of parenting. I remember when my friend’s husband, now ex-husband, used to come home, spend little time with the children, and then disappear into his study, not lifting one finger to contribute toward the daily activities of the home. She was even expected to care for the children while in the throes of pregnancy illness, and countless flus and colds. He would abandon her at home, refusing to take a sick to day to let her rest and heal. Sick days in bed were his privileges he enjoyed because he worked – she was not worthy of a break from “her” duties. These “men” justify the abdication of their responsibilities in countless ways, but it’s time they stop getting away with these deliberate acts of harm against their own families.
As mothers we were sold a bag of lies - that if we followed a certain parenting philosophy, or adopted the latest expert’s guide to discipline we were giving our kids an advantage, that they would have above average intelligence, great health, and would be caring and loving beings spreading joy and peace throughout the world. Yet, scientific studies, particularly twin research, reveal a different story.
These studies emphasize that a significant portion of children's traits and long-term outcomes are influenced by genetic factors and chance experiences, rather than solely by parental influence. While parents undoubtedly impact their children's lives, we are not the sole architects of their fate. Research, notably works like Judith Rich Harris's "The Nurture Assumption," questions the direct correlation between parental actions and children's outcomes. It suggests that parents play a vital role as guides and companions in their children's lives rather than absolute determiners of their future.
Turns out our chances of having control of how our children enter the world in their 20’s are about as high as our chances of controlling of the weather. Humans belong more to their own generation than they do to their parents.
Religions of the world, unsurprisingly, do not like this notion, pushing the idea that by sheer force, we can make our kids be what we want them to be, even tasking parents to take part in these harmful practices. They thrive on and profit from unrealistic notions of motherhood, telling us giving up our entire lives in service to our children is noble. It serves their agenda, erasing our needs and identity, in favor of forcing us into a life of changing diapers, making pot roast, dusting pews, and writing the church newsletter.
We need to bust up the myth of the perfect mother - that we control our children or that our parenting choices “made” them one way or the other. Realizing that we play less of a role than we thought helps us become better caregivers and helps us stop wasting our time with things we have zero control over. These myths are used as weapons to control women, to keep us doing the unpaid labor of raising the next generation. And when children don’t turn out as expected, they deflect from the idea that their notions of raising children are at fault. Instead, they blame the mother and defend their fantasy of the perfect mother.
The fact is, that our children came THROUGH us, not from us. Our children belong to the earth, the sky, the world, the universe, God… whatever words you want to use. They don’t belong to us. They are human beings, they have souls, they have paths, they have things to learn. They are not our human beings under our control and never were.
Parenting is caregiving. Plain and simple. We are not saviors of the world, and we are not responsible for how our children turn out, good, bad or average. We cannot take credit for the good our children do, and we can’t take care for the bad they do. It isn’t our doing. It’s all theirs.
I hope my friend can come to realize that her children’s perceived failings are not hers, that she did a great job. I hope she realizes one day that her gift to those boys was pure, and good. I hope that she moves on with her life, still loving them the way she did when they were infants but allowing them to take responsibility for their own selves now so that she can move on with hers.