Deflating the myth of perfect parenting

Two splashy stories challenge our ideas of what makes a good mother

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 20, 2011 7:21PM (EDT)

There are two kinds of parents in the world. There are those who strive to re-create for their children the blissful upbringings that they themselves once knew. And then there are the rest of us. But somewhere in the quest to make childhood a safer, happier, more secure place, parenting -- and specifically, motherhood -- became a highly competitive field. And as two recent, much forwarded features reveal, that zeal is not just driving parents crazy, it might not even be so great for the kids.

First, Lori Gottlieb -- the author who just last year made the best-selling case for "settling" for "Mr. Good Enough"  -- took a similarly bar-lowering tack to parenting in this month's Atlantic. In a story with the hot button title "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," Gottlieb now advocates for the "good-enough mother" and wonders, as she regards the anxious patients in her psychotherapy practice, "Was it possible [their] parents had done too much?"

Somehow, in the "running ourselves ragged in a Herculean effort to do right by our kids," a new generation of eager, educated and often guilt-stricken parents has been tyrannizing its children with good intentions: too much "protecting our kids from unhappiness," too little of what Wendy Mogel calls the blessing of a skinned knee. And while there will no doubt now be a bold new crop of parents who can worry that they're worrying too much about how they parent after reading her story, Gottlieb ultimately offers the reassuring message of child psychologist and author Dan Kindlon, that "Kids need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle."

But while it's hard enough to give our children room to experience life's rich bonanza of opportunities for discomfort, failure, and struggle,  the challenge can be even more intense when we offer them -- and our peers -- a view of our own. In this week's Sunday New York Times, Pamela Paul delivered a brutally frank -- and for many, painfully familiar -- look at "How Divorce Lost Its Cachet" in the hyper-attentive, crunchy world of sophisticated urban parenting. In it, she profiles several educated, successful mothers who discovered how quickly a marital breakup can shake up one's seemingly safe peer group. With divorce rates declining steadily -- and even more dramatically among college educated couples -- a marital crisis can seem as massive a social failure as forgetting your Food Co-Op obligation or not getting your kid into Brooklyn Friends. Or, as writer Susan Gregory Thomas describes it, "All of a sudden, this community I'd lived in for 13 years became this spare and mean savannah." And yet, as Paul quotes a divorced literary agent explaining, "Divorce is completely different from when your parents split up. If your kids feel loved and they don’t see hideous behavior, they'll be fine."

When, three years ago, my own social circle erupted in a sudden spate of breakups, it was shocking how shocked our tight-knit group turned out to be. Within my CSA-supporting, playdate-organizing community of seemingly like-minded parents, there were plenty of friends who remained steadfast and supportive to the suddenly single among us. And then there were those who instinctively tsk-tsked the women they'd once laughingly traded tales from the relationship front lines with, who endlessly speculated, while their children played on swing sets a few feet away, over the root causes of other women's woes -- and how best to avoid their grim fates. As a fellow mother once sadly told me, as if divorce were a case of head lice going around, "Now I feel like none of us are safe." (That, and "Is this your midlife crisis?" remain up there on my list of things not to say to a recently separated human being.)

Lori Gottlieb and Pamela Paul -- and the social circles they cover -- are not meant to represent the US of A as a whole. This great nation of ours is full of parents who don't pore over mommy blogs looking for the most eco-friendly edutainment toys for their kids, who don't fret if little Balthazar mixes it up with another kid on the playground, who don't ostracize the local divorcees. Yet the phenomena these women write about are nevertheless real for a whole lot of people. An entire generation of bright, truly committed and well-intentioned parents find themselves fretting now over how to avoid tainting their children with the baggage of their own youths, whether it's hazardous playground equipment or ugly divorces. 

There's great -- and by that I mean terrible -- irony in the way that the most supposedly enlightened and liberal of parenting enclaves can feel suffocatingly like a meeting of the Harper Valley PTA.  And if you've ever felt the icy chill of scorn that comes from showing up at the playground with, horrors, a plastic water bottle or a newly ring-free finger, if you've ever sensed the implied critique that comes with having your child be the one who face-plants in the sandbox, there's surely  something to be said for knowing you're not alone.

For a certain segment of a new generation of highly driven parents, marriage and children aren't just fulfilling relationships, they're personal achievements. Their children are both gifted and talented. Their marriages are rock solid. But for the rest of us, the ones who've fallen down and made mistakes and stood many times, cheese-like, alone, there's a great deal of comfort to be found in the hope that someday, in spite of our own shortcomings and mistakes, our kids might aspire to give their own offspring a childhood as loving and messy, as tender and honest, as the imperfect ones we once gave them.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------