As a psychotherapist, a lot of my work lies in helping my clients heal from childhood wounds. Often these wounds were inflicted by caregivers who were too critical, too cold, too overbearing, too abusive, too much of all the wrong things. In the beginning of my career, as I sat and witnessed the emotional wreckage caused by harmful parenting decisions, I could not help but judge the parents. I would glare at their missteps as I helped their adult children pick up pieces of themselves to feel whole once again.
And then I had a child of my own. Much to my horror, I discovered that my love for my daughter was imperfect. Despite knowing the importance of early attachment and modeling positive emotional regulation skills, I floundered under the heavy weight of becoming a parent. Becoming a new mother was so demanding that I could barely survive, let alone worry about my baby’s emotional development. And so there were many times I made poor choices, not because I did not want the best for my child, but because in that moment, that was the best I could do. This experience fundamentally shifted how I now see many of my clients’ parents. I no longer sit on the high horse of unconditional love and morality. I now wonder, what were the parents going through so that they were unable to love their children in a healthy manner? What had they learned from their own parents? Was this the best they could do? These questions are not meant to excuse the deep pain and damage abusive parents cause their children. I do believe the minute you become a parent, it is your utmost responsibility to offer your child the best version of yourself, even if it means sacrificing everything else. These questions simply explore the million and one things that shape people into parents and how it can have little to do with the child themselves.
I have now concluded that a parent’s love does not need to be perfect, it just needs to be honest. Loving kids honestly looks like admitting to our children that our less than stellar parenting is due to our own shortcomings and showing them how we are working on becoming better. It is sometimes asking for compassion from our kids as we go through a particularly challenging moment. It is sincerely apologizing for when we have hurt them and offering to make amends.
I want my daughter to know that since I am human and flawed, my love is also destined to be human and flawed. I realize that there is so much pressure on parents to raise their children perfectly, without any sign of emotional damage. I believe this is an impossible, dare I say, harmful approach to parenting. If we don’t mess up as parents, how can we teach our children to apologize, how to repair a relationship, how to forgive? By helping our children realize that we, their parents, are imperfect, and that our imperfections have little to do with them, we help them realize that their self-worth is not defined by how others treat them. Most importantly, let us not squander this opportunity to teach our children the most important lesson of all: we do not need to be perfect to love and to be loved.