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I parent, trying to be good enough!

Hello all current and future parents-welcome to my blog.

If you haven't already been to our "about page," we are two physician-scientist parents of twins who created this blog to try and talk about our experiences and process in trying to be a mindful parent.

Many have done it before, but....

Our times have changed so rapidly and dramatically that we found it difficult to rely on past templates of parenthood. Yes-people have been raising kids for eons, and that is a good thing to remind oneself of from time to time. It is important to recognize, though, that every generation of parents faces some unique challenges and my personal sense (which of course, is colored by my own biases) is that during our time, our world became more rapidly changing in terms of migration, technological advances, climate change, social awareness and a rethinking of what it really means to be in a civilized society and try to raise reasonably well-adapted and resilient children. My wife is a pediatrician and when our kids were born, I thought to myself-"ohh! she knows all about children. I'll just follow her lead." We both realized pretty soon that although she knew about the developmental milestones that are taught in medical textbooks and she knew a heck of a lot about the diseases of children, we were both completely unprepared for the incredible spectrum of "normal" behaviors and responses that occur in children. Furthermore, being the parent of multiples is a unique experience as we saw that each of our children had their own unique personality (from day one!), likes and dislikes as well as interests.

Expert opinion..hmm!

Being the diligent modern parents that we are, we thought we would read up on what the experts have to say and bought recommended and non-recommended books on the thorny issue of parenting. Experts talking about why children are totally worth it, how to talk to your children in a calm and authoritative manner without losing your s#!*,books on brain and emotional development, books on feeding, books on potty training, books on emotional resilience. I even read recommended books on child psychology to understand how I, as an adult, could change my reactions and behaviors to temper my expectations and meaningfully interact with my children.

I acknowledge that amidst all these books, journals and articles, I did sometimes pick up a nugget of wisdom here and there. In the end (and the reason for writing this post) though, almost none of these experts talk about YOU-the parent, the caregiver, the person who has to be the "primary responsible party" for this individual(s) who has come into your world and taken it over both literally and figuratively. The recent New Yorker interview of Dr. Harvey Karp is a good example. Now I would like to state upfront that this was one of the more "realistic" interviews about parenting that I read with tons of great information. There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Karp is a compassionate and reasonable expert who cares deeply about children. There are some key issues that he talks about that you only realize or come to appreciate ONLY after becoming a parent. Some of the quotes that really resonated with me are highlighted below

  • There’s a science side to this, but there is also a reality-of-life, a sociological point of view that I think having a young child gives you access to. It’s kind of like how, when you walk into a supermarket, if you don’t have a dog, you have no idea where the dog food is. So having an awareness of this parallel slice of life, I think, does give different insights.

  • We have a lot of things distracting us. The list is long

  • (As a doctor) I’ve learned that it’s harder to carry out things than it is to tell people to carry out things. If you’re doing it right fifty per cent of the time, you’re really successful

  • We believed the lie—just like parents today believe the lie—that the quote-unquote normal family is parents and a child. In fact, that is the most abnormal family in the world. The only normal family is extended family, with your grandmother, your aunt, your sister, your next-door neighbor. Today, if you have a nanny, you’re well off, but everyone should have five nannies—an extended family, a community. You don’t really think about that when you move to New York City, and you have a professional life, and then you have a baby and you go, “Oh, so that’s why people live in a duplex."

  • There’s a psychiatrist, Bruce Perry, who does this thing, which is looking at the number of relationships that a young child has. If it’s a single parent and a single child, how many relationships are possible for that child to have? Two: their relationship with themselves, and their relationship with the parent. That’s pretty much it. If there are two parents and two children, now you actually have one parent and the child, two parents and the child, two parents and the two children, the child and the other child, the child by themselves. Suddenly, you’ve increased it by a factorial relationship. And so if you have cousins and the next-door neighbors, and you’ve got a dog and a cat, suddenly you see this very rich social environment as opposed to, really, a social poverty.

  • It’s literally torture—I don’t know if you know this, but we train our Navy SEALs for torture by playing the sound of crying babies over loudspeakers. They do it at Guantánamo to stress out the prisoners: sleep deprivation and the sound of screaming babies. It goes deep into our neurology. Parents are desperate for help. Especially when you follow the rules, and the rules are wrong. The mother’s desperate for help; the father’s desperate for help. You’re subject to all of these crosscurrents of “Bed-share, don’t bed-share.” “Don’t let them cry it out, let them cry it out.”

One of my favorite quotes though, is this one where he talks about his experience with Dr. Barbara Korsch, whose specialty was doctor-patient communication. Dr.Karp was told that "You can’t just say, “Babies need this, or they’re going to die, and it’s your responsibility to do it.” It’s true, but it’s not necessarily going to win the argument—not until you really respectfully understand where people are coming from and then try to work with them in terms of their ideological point of view. For me, that was the most fun part of pediatrics: every child is different, every family is different." I strongly feel that this quote partly summarizes my experience and probably the experience of many other parents who have gone through the sleepless nights, the fatigue, the confusion and the most of all the guilt of "not doing it right, being the sub-optimal parent."

However, the part that Dr. Karp and most experts doesn't talk about explicitly is that it is not just about "the ideological point of view." For me, the critical element that most experts miss out on or at least are reluctant to talk about is that as a new parent, the most important factor that I had to observe and keep observing is -wait for it.... yourself! What do I mean by that? I have realized this the hardest way possible but I am now convinced that it was really important that as new parents, we started to think very seriously about our own childhood influences- the love we got from parental figures or care providers, who did we emulate subconsciously, what are the parts of us that felt fulfilled and secure as a child and what were the parts that felt abandoned or ignored. How were we disciplined and has that made us follow the same methods or subconsciously made us swing in the completely opposite direction where we might become putty in the hands of our children. We have had to think about the child in us and hold its hand in support, love and kindness to really start to become a "mindful parent". It is an ongoing process and we are very glad that we have become part of a journey,although hard (and sometimes brutal) is exciting, surprising and wonderful. In the process, We were very glad then to come across Bettelheim and the the concept of the "good enough parent!" For me, it is important to acknowledge that as parents we are all trying our best given our circumstances. That the "good enough parents" do not strive to be perfect parents and do not expect perfection from their children.I am sure there will be many of us with whom this quote from Bettelheim will resonate:

The erroneous modern conviction is that problems should not occur and that someone has to be at fault when they do; this causes untold misery within the family unit, aggravating the original difficulty and sometimes even putting the validity of marriage and family into question. … An ancient Chinese proverb says that no family can hang out the sign ‘Nothing the matter here."

I highly recommend folks that are more interested in this topic to start with this excellent online article that provides a great overview of the key issues that Bettelheim highlighted and the pros and cons of his conclusions. Obviously, like every other expert, Bettelheim probably did not completely understand how a parent's psychological development and childhood experiences shape their behavior in regard to their child but what the term "good enough parent" does for me, personally, is that it gives me breathing space, gives me pause when I am feeling guilty as a parent and reminds me that we are all trying to do our best. Work with what you got, give yourself permission to be the "good enough parent."

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