There is no such thing as a perfect parent.
Photo credit: Danielle Dahl
I said it loud for all the people in the back. It’s a truth; it took me too long to learn. Sixteen years, to be exact…
My daughter is turning 16 in a matter of days, and it is causing me a minor panic attack. I have been searching my soul for some words of wisdom to write in her card while trying not to break down. In my mind, she will keep this card forever; in reality, it will probably end up in a trash can.
Parenting is hard. Parenting when you have experienced childhood trauma is its own special kind of hell. I am trying to learn how to parent through trauma, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are too.
Managing my expectations was the first thing I learned to do to curb my perfect parenting tendencies.
It is exceptionally difficult to be a “good parent” when you come from a place of childhood traumas. Being abandoned by your dad, a drug-addicted mom who floats in and out of your life, and verbal, emotional, and physical abuse by your grandma who took you in, aren’t the best tools to start the parenting journey with.
My first expectation was that I would do everything differently. Not only would I do it differently, but I would do it perfectly. No dark sodas, early bedtimes, dance, soccer, karate, reading in the summer, sleepovers with friends, limited screen time… everything I was “supposed” to do. Life seemed to be trucking along splendidly.
Middle school is a horrible pit of doom and gloom; for parents and kids alike. It was here we encountered sexuality, our first Snapchat debacle, mean girls, a bout of severe depression (for the both of us), and learning to be accountable for our actions. Bad doesn’t even begin to describe it, and there were days I didn’t know if we would make it out alive. I had barely survived my own middle school hell, and I had expected that hers would be different.
She is beyond beautiful, kind, sassy, and not broken in ways the world can see and in ways it can’t. I thought she would be one of the girls I always hated but secretly wanted to be in middle school. At this moment, I learned something that 13–15-year-old me truly never understood. The “perfect” girls have their own set of problems that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
They feel far from perfect when their idiot boyfriend cheats on them. They feel deceived when their friends are fake. They question their own beauty the same way the rest of us beautifully imperfect, perfect girls do. If you cut them, they do bleed.
I am embarrassed I didn’t grasp this concept until well into my thirties. The thought that my daughter would have perfect teenage adventures was the second expectation I had to let go of.
We got to high school, thankfully, and freshman year was a little better. She found the dance team and some wonderful friends. But she would still seem so sad, and we were fighting over the silliest things. In the middle of one of these arguments, she told me she wanted to go to therapy.
This was a slap in the face of my “perfect parenting”… I mean, I couldn’t understand how a child who was being raised by her still happily married parents (who had enrolled her in dance, soccer, and karate) could have arrived at this place, where therapy was the next step.
This was the third expectation that had to go. Therapy, for anyone, is not a sign of failure.
We both started seeing a therapist. It made her happy to have some unbiased person to speak with, and frankly, I should have seen a therapist years ago. I learned that my daughter had been watching me be unkind to myself for the last 15 years. I was always struggling because no matter what I did, it was never good enough for me. She repeated this kind of thing to herself. Now, even though I had never told her that the things she did were not perfect, she heard my voice in her head.
While I heard my grandmother telling me that my third-grade homework had too many erasure marks and needed to be rewritten, my daughter saw me have meltdowns over structurally unsound, not up to code gingerbread houses that ended up in the trash can.
I expected her to be perfect because, in my head, she is the most perfect being I have ever known. But that is too much pressure for anyone to bear. And unsustainable for one’s own psyche.
So, to my wonderfully imperfect child, please know that I love you for exactly who you are. I wouldn’t change a thing about who you are growing into. My quest for perfection has never been about you not being good enough, but about me not being good enough for you. I promise I am trying to learn to parent through my trauma.
As a parent, that is our best choice. All we can choose to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep healing. You already know how to do this because you have been doing it for a long time. These skills have made you a survivor. You will survive parenting, too, with a little grace, self-love, and a lot of patience.
My child also taught me that it’s OK with me if you throw away your birthday cards. They are only paper, not your heart, and not your love. We need to cling to those things and never let go of them because they are all matter in the end.
So, take a deep breath! Hold on tight because parenting is a wild ride, and it will not go the way you planned. It will be more beautiful and worthwhile than any perfect fantasy you carefully crafted in your head.