Parenting, not perfection

Oct 232012

duck 300x200 Parenting a special needs child

When you decide to be a parent, you imagine that perfect little baby swaddled in a cute blanket that was knit by your Mom. You imagine the moments like bringing them home and changing their diapers and breast feeding them and having them cuddle on your chest. You imagine them learning how to walk and rambling through the house like drunken sailors while you make sure that their falls will be pain free. You imagine teaching them how to read or write their names or ride a bike or drive a car or go to college.  You never imagine seeing your child in an incubator or in an MRI machine or being tested. But, for some of us, this is reality.

Being the parent of a special needs child is a weird concept. Sure, all kids have special needs because they are all unique. However, being parents of special needs kids we know that some of the things we worry about do not fall anywhere close to ‘normal’ kids. If people complained that kids do not come with parenting manuals you can imagine how it feels to be told your child can’t do something that all kids do.

Parenting a special needs child is a marathon, not a sprint. There are days that you imagine are normal and then there are days when you think you cannot take another blow or stressor. There are days when your child is just a joy and others where your child tests every ounce of patience you have ever had. There are days where you feel supported in this journey with your child but most days you are not only an advocate but a champion with a flaming sword and you would abandon all your principles and contemplate killing people who stand in the way of your child’s progress or care.

Being the parent of a special needs child is like any other parent; we have good days and bad. Our good days are days where we do not need to deal with any drama or crises and bad days…well, just the opposite. We are not better or stronger, we were just handed a different set of issues to deal with. Every parent has concerns for their kids and the stress they place on us are just as debilitating and real. Some parents worry that little Billy will pass a test. We worry that little Sonya will have a positive test. Some parents worry that little Andrea will be successful in school. We worry little Bartholomew will actually be able to go to a regular school.

Our worries are different but the sentiment is the same; we love our kids and will do anything for them. Parenting should be a job that is honored with medals and ranks. In this day of testing and medicating our kids and the rise in Spectrum Disorder diagnoses, we all need to be aware that we could very well be parenting a special needs kid. Whether your child has a medically depilating condition or a physical handicap or multiply diagnosed or a learning disability or is gifted, the role of parent is critical. We must choose a course of treatment/action that will maximize their potential and minimize their stressors. We think that is worth a rank of Colonel.

Jul 262010

perfectMom 203x300 Perfection

As a parent of three with varying needs, I have been known to do stupid things. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not a perfect parent. I proudly claim that I am a perfectly imperfect parent. I am filled with awe with how mediocre to awful I can be sometimes. But that’s me. I am the mother of a smart, witty, 17 year old young lady who is visually impaired, hearing impaired, suffered a stroke at birth and has Asperger’s. I am also the mother to 6 and 3 year old boys who are brilliant, inquisitive, have no diagnoses and will probably be heart throbs/class clowns and jocks. These kids couldn’t be more different if they had come from a distant planet.

The biggest improvement to my parenting came when I realized I could not be perfect. Not only that, but I also had the realization that the ‘perfect parent’ was tantamount to saying smothering, overbearing and traumatizing. We know that ‘perfect’ is an ideal and that state is impossible to achieve. However, the kicker is that we still strive to get things perfect. We are a society filled with perfectionism. Marketing is directed at this golden ring. Drive the perfect car and live in the perfect neighborhood and work at the perfect job to attain the perfect life.

As a therapist, I have worked with many perfectionists. I have worked with perfectionists who were homeless, drug addicts, pedophiles and rapists. I know that offends your sensibilities to think that those types of people could also be striving for perfectionism but it is true. The need to line up all your shoes or dot all your ‘I’s’ came from none other than our parents. And, believe it or not, these people can usually go back to see that their dysfunctional behavior came from beliefs made from things their parents told them.

As a society we have this dichotomous understanding of children. On one hand, we believe that kids are sponges and can understand more than we give them credit. On the other hand, we think children are naïve and ignorant as to the ways of the world. The truth is that they are both. A child is innocent yet can be as or more intelligent than you. Intelligence is virtually static. Smarts is smarts. So as parents we baby talk them and then place them in situations where we, as parents, choose to behave in certain ways. We express to them sadness, disappointment and withhold love when there is failure, even if it is in the guise of false bravado. Children pick up meta-messages but cannot decipher them like us because of their ignorance and naiveté. These messages come in as ‘mistakes are bad’ and ‘I will be loved if I am perfect’.

To be clear, when I say withhold love, there are certain times as human beings where we know we should be doing something but emotionally are unable to. Sometimes we can’t find the energy or motivation to fake a good hug or focus on our kids the way they need. We are human before we are parents. Sometimes we are overwhelmed and can’t be genuine so even a hug can be interpreted as a pity embrace. When I say withhold love, I am not referring to slamming the door in their little faces and saying ‘I hate you’ or ‘you don’t deserve my love’.

If you find that you react a little to the ‘perfect parent’ label, perhaps you should look at that. Perfection is insidious, impossible and destructive. Passing that infection to your children is worse than a hereditary disease. So go get dirty, make a mess, screw up and hug your kid. Tell them they are imperfect and messy and gross and stinky and that’s all right.

Lee is a psychotherapist specializing in Marriage and Family Therapy and Addiction. She is the co-founder of She is married and writes with her husband, Paul.