Tuesday 17 September 2019

Age of Anxiety: Why are parents beating themselves up - all the time?

The Long Read: When it comes to raising children, parents are locked in a spiral of self-criticism that is ultimately taking a toll on themselves and their kids. John Meagher reports

Andrea Mara with her children Eliza, Nia and Matthew. Photo: Mark Condren
Andrea Mara with her children Eliza, Nia and Matthew. Photo: Mark Condren
Rachel Keogh with her family
John Meagher

John Meagher

When Andrea Mara is on social media and she sees friends and acquaintances post photos of their weekend activities with their children, she can scroll through contentedly until an image arrives that highlights something she failed to do that day.

"The sight of a beautiful home-cooked meal doesn't get to me and I don't think, 'Look at those children winning medals and mine aren't' - that doesn't bother me at all. But what triggers something in me is a photo of kids at the beach or on a forest walk on a sunny day and we've just spent it pottering around the house. It makes me go, 'Aaagghhhh… I should have done something like that with my children."

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The Dublin mother-of-three - who writes the 'Office Mum' blog and has published two thrillers - mentions Instagram because she believes it is one of a myriad of things that can make today's parents feel guilty about their parenting.

"It seemed easier in my parents' time," she says. "You'd talk to your family or friends if you wanted advice. Now there are parenting books and magazine articles and blogs - I'm part of it, even though I usually write about the stuff I'm doing wrong - and the problem is that if you turn to the internet to get that little bit of information you were looking for, you get flooded with a deluge of other stuff. So, if you do something simple like check on the internet how long your newborn baby should be napping, not only do you often not get a straight answer, but you come away thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm doing everything wrong.'"

And that sentiment, she feels, can lead to over-compensating. "I used to try to cram as much as possible into the weekend and they - and I - would end up exhausted on a Sunday night. Now, we've cut back on over-scheduling and it's made a big difference - everyone feels a bit calmer."

It's a sentiment echoed by Slane, Co Meath-based mother-of-four Rachel Keogh. "Every parent wants the best for their children - and after school it can be swimming and piano lessons and it's go, go, go. But sometimes, what they really want - and what they actually need - is to be able to just come home from school and flop on the sofa.

"I think this generation of parents - myself included - spend a lot of time over-thinking what it means to be a parent. I doubt previous generations knew what 'tiger moms' or 'helicopter parents' were, but everyone today does."

Comparing parenting skills

As stay-at-home parent, she says, it can be difficult not to compare your parenting skills with others, especially when there's so much advice available online. "You can get swamped very easily with all the information. Sometimes it's best to just take a step back and to stop worrying."

It is sometimes said that today's post-9/11 world is an Age of Anxiety. And that anxiety can affect many, especially when job insecurity, housing issues and environmental concerns are factored in.

And parents not only have their own anxieties with which to grapple, they also shoulder those concerning their children. Many parents can have profound concerns about their ability to raise children, and can wonder if their approach to parenthood is doing their children more harm than good.

Several of the legitimate fears parents have today were not a factor when they were children - such as cyber-bullying and the ready availability of online pornography - and many of us can find it difficult to navigate the role of being a mother and father in a fast-changing world.

It's something that the readers of the MummyPages.ie parenting website talk of time and again, according to its head of community, Laura Erskine. "Our mum community certainly feel more under pressure when it comes to their parenting skills than they feel their parents would have experienced.

"This pressure is understandable given the amount of stresses experienced by today's parent versus yesteryear, however it is now worryingly turning into an anxiety epidemic. And that anxiety is predominantly caused by the level of scrutiny they feel their parenting is under thanks to a plethora of best parenting practices shared with them through all forms of media, predominantly the digital variety.

"A generation ago, our parents had a parenting book as a point of reference and the village of mums that supported them, a far cry from the information overload and competitive parenting that is evident today."

Erskine, who is a mother herself, says anxiety levels among today's parents has been so high it affects their actual parenting. "Intervention has even been required in some cases," she says. "You cannot underestimate the ripple effect of this being experienced by children and their parents' own relationship.

"The desire to be the best parent for your children rather than do your best for them can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. Distancing yourself from unhelpful friends, family members or social-media platforms is one form of intervention, while counselling or life coaching has helped others."

Child psychologist Stella O'Malley sympathises with parents who feel anxious and guilty - and says that despite her training and years of research, she sometimes feels the very same way herself about her own approach to parenting.

"Parenting now can feel like a pressure test, a bit like doing the Leaving Cert all the time. We put so much pressure on ourselves to get it right and there's so much emphasis on the fall-out, this idea that there will be a massive problem if we don't get it right.

"Back in the 80s, it was a case of mother knows best. What she said went. Now it's a case of everybody knows better than the parent. Parents are often disrespected and presumed that they don't know better and that every other professional - including myself - is the expert they should be listening to. I do believe that knowledge sets us free, but I also believe that talking about something incessantly definitely creates tension and the problem is we're over-thinking what it is to be a parent."

O'Malley wrote about the phenomenon of over-protective parents and the harm they unwittingly do to their children in her first book, Cotton Wool Kids. "I would love parents to feel like they've been set free [from judgment and experts] and they can calm down. We are actually wrecking things through effort. If we tried less we'd be a lot better off.

"One of the main ideas of Cotton Wool Kids is we shouldn't be hovering around our children all the time. Every single piece of research shows that that style of parenting makes the kids anxious, it makes them more incompetent, it makes them less confident and it makes the parents stressed, anxious and resentful. It's bad on every single level.

"Every family now has become this individual fiefdom and it's not really working out very well. It would be better if there was more emphasis for the children on their friendships and less emphasis on their family. It's become very intensely family-oriented and I don't think it's good for them."

Guilty parents

Child and family psychotherapist Joanna Fortune regularly sees stressed-out parents in her practice. They're striving to be the best parent they can be, but they feel as though they are coming up short. Guilt is a characteristic that embodies this new breed of parent.

"Guilt," she says, "is more than common - it's universal. If you are a parent you know what parental guilt is because there is this constant sense for all of us that we're not doing enough.

"If we keep striving to being everything to our kids, giving them everything, and every opportunity and never having them struggle or feel lost, then gosh, you are going to be consumed with not only guilt but a permanent pervasive sense of failure - and that combination will bring anxiety."

Fortune believes it is unhelpful to look back at a supposedly rosier time. "While it's good to look back and recall what worked, it's also equally important to recall what didn't work. It might have been nice for the child to have their mums at home - but that was a time when they were expected to mind the children, or even required to give up their work to stay at home. And how many were resentful because of that?

"Sometimes parents who are both working outside the home might wish it was possible to roll back the clock a bit, but we can only parent in the time we live in. We have new challenges today that weren't there in the past. But what was important then is just as important today - and that's mindful, quality time with your child."

Fortune's recently published book, 15-Minute Parenting, tackles head-on the challenges low-time parents experience. "It's about embracing those opportunity for moments of shared joy - and those opportunities are plentiful.

"If you're telling me you have a short time with them every day, try to maximise the quality of that time and by doing it daily you are predictable. When you're predictable you're [seen by the child as] safe and when you're safe you feel secure in this relationship. And just 15 minutes of very connected quality time one-on-one when the phone is put away, and it's just the two of you, is an immense gift. And you can do that quality time when you are bathing them or putting them down to bed."

She cautions against the destructiveness of repeated self-criticism. "If you keep beating yourself up about what you believe you're not doing, you are communicating that and basically oozing guilt and failure and frustration and irritation. And that's not in your or your child's best interest."

The anxiety the parent experiences could be passed on to the child, as they pick up on their parent's stress around a particular situation.

According to Fortune, anxiety can have a significant impact on children's development. "With anxiety, a child can become locked into a state of anticipatory arousal, this is a heightened emotional state over a prolonged period of time. The life impact is significant. It makes it hard for them to think logically and rationally about a situation. They are on high alert for signs that they are right to feel they way they do. When aroused by anxiety it's like a child 'flips their lid', which neurologically means the thinking part of the brain is offline and they sink quickly to the emotional brain which is firing fight/flight/freeze cues.

"It impacts a child's capacity to draw pleasure from experiences and makes them reluctant to join in with peers - who appear to be coping better than the child feels they are themselves. It can make a child feel emotionally unsafe. It is also exhausting to be in such a heightened state for a prolonged time."

And when a child is anxious, a parent, naturally, may express worry - an action that could simply aggravate the situation.

Over-scheduling

Fortune also urges parents to resist the temptation to over-schedule weekends in an effort to compensate for a perceived lack of family time mid-week. "That leads to a whole new level of guilt because children can get over-stimulated [by multiple activities] and that can lead to a meltdown. Rather than doing a high-adrenaline activity to stimulate them, you have to remember the simple things, that just sitting next to you, doing nothing, can mean everything to the child. It's you that they want.

"I really believe in having plenty of unstructured, unplanned time at weekends and if the energy is dipping and irritation is coming on them, you could say, 'Let's make popcorn together', or 'Let's get out into the garden and pick up all the brown leaves we can find'. These are simple, fun activities that remain relational - it's not, 'Let me send you away to do something.'"

O'Malley believes part of the reason many of today's parents feel a sense of guilt about how they raise their children is to do with the age they're at when they have children. "Today's parents are far older than their own parents were when they had them," she says.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, having children was a much more mindless decision. Back then, to have sex meant to have children, to fall in love meant to have children, to get married meant to have children. It was a lot more reflexive. Now, it's a very conscious and really thought-out thing. Our children sort of become these bonsai trees that we carefully cultivate.

"Sadly, that's creating a lot of expectation for those children - and it's a lie to say we don't have children without expectation. We are presuming that we will have children and that will make for a happy family and that will make for a happy life and ultimately we will be happy. But when this doesn't happen - as it inevitably does over 20 or 30 years - there can be a lot of distress for everyone."

Her advice to stressed-out parents is as refreshing as it is simple: "Try less hard. Stop exhausting yourself with effort. Most parents know what children need and parenting is something that's been done forever. Go with the flow - the chances are your kids will turn out just fine. Take a step back. And just enjoy being a parent."

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