Why Good Parents Always Feel Inadequate

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When professionals told Lynn Beisner she was a good mother, she wouldn’t believe them. She discusses why the best parents are usually the ones who feel most incompetent.

I held the large white envelope with trembling hands. In it was the all-important evaluation of my parenting. It would likely determine the outcome of my young children’s lives, where they lived, and how they were raised.  

The evaluation had been ordered by a family court judge to help resolve once and for all the custody issues that lingered five years after my divorce had become final. My current husband, Pete, and I had gotten married the year before, so he was included to some extent in the evaluation process, and the evaluators were especially keen to see how we parented as a team.  But overwhelmingly, the focus of the evaluations was on how good of a mother I was.

The process included a full battery of psychological tests—a half dozen interviews separate and together in various group formations so they could see how everyone related individually and together. They conducted multiple home-visits in which our daily parenting was observed by a social worker and by one of the leading family forensic psychologists in the area.

I sat looking at the envelope, unable to open it. In my heart, I knew what the evaluation would say because I knew what kind of mother I was. Not a week went by that I did not collapse in bed next to my husband and wail, “Why am I so bad at being a mother? It is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. Why is it that everyone else is able to do this so much better than I can, and they all do it so effortlessly? You know I am going to ruin those kids’ lives, right?”

I must have sat staring at that envelope for an hour. Finally, when I thought I had braced myself well enough to see my parenting flaws enumerated, I opened the envelope. The forensic psychologist started his summary with his very impressive credentials. I remember an icy pit forming in my stomach. A guy with this much expertise was going to see right through my good mom act and realize how bad I was at this. Then I read that, in his opinion, Pete and I were among the best parents that he had ever met or evaluated. He said he doubted that even he and his wife were parenting as well as Pete and I were. The second evaluation was by a social worker with extensive experience in custody evaluations; she said basically the same thing but in less effusive terms.

As soon as I absorbed the contents of the report, I was filled with the dark certainty that I was a sociopath. I dropped the report like it was toxic and grabbed the phone.

I called my sister-in-law, Luna, who is one of my best friends and also a child psychologist. Before she could even get through “Hello,” I blurted out, “I am a sociopath. I have evidence right here.” I explained that we had gotten the results of the parenting evaluation and they were so good there was no way they could be real. I must have been unconsciously but expertly manipulating both of the evaluators.

After she stopped laughing, Luna assured me that I was not a sociopath. She pointed out that even a gifted sociopath would have difficulty tricking two people who had decades of experience evaluating parents in custody disputes. She went on to say that if I couldn’t believe those experts or simply couldn’t believe that I was a really good mom, perhaps I could believe her when she said that in her professional opinion, I was at the very least a good enough mother.

Toward the end of our conversation, Luna said something I have never forgotten: “All of the really good parents I know are convinced that they have no idea what they are doing, and worry that they are not doing a good job. But the parents who worry me are the ones who come into my office convinced that they know what to do and that they are doing it well.”

Obviously, I don’t believe that I was as good of a parent as the forensic psychologist thought that I was. And to be clear, I did not write this story to brag or to claim some sort of parental expertise. I wrote it so that parents will believe me when I tell them that feeling incompetent or like an imposter is part and parcel of the whole parenting gig.

Even those of us who have had our parenting professionally evaluated do not believe it when our work is found adequate if not exemplary. We are fairly certain that we have just fooled the experts and that in reality, we suck. What is more, I would say that even the experts feel incompetent. That is what I took from the psychologist’s assertion that Pete and I were doing a better job than he and his wife. It was more than just a compliment; it was a reminder of just how universal and insidious feelings of parental inadequacy can be.  

I raised my children at the height of what I can only describe as the era of competitive mothering. It is sad that in our efforts to demonstrate our competence by one-upping each other we lost the solidarity that comes from being able to confess incompetence—no matter how real or imagined it might be. We watched as other parents raised children who seemed perfectly accomplished, well-groomed, and emotionally healthy, and they did it all with effortless aplomb. Meanwhile, we flailed around like giraffes on ice skates.

Now that my children are young adults, it is a whole lot easier to admit how incompetent I felt and often was as a parent. Here is what I wish someone had told me back when my children were young, long before I was holding that white envelope:  

First: You will be genuinely incompetent during at least one age or stage that your children go through. I was not good with babies. Don’t worry. You don’t have to get it right every time. You just have to aim to get it right more often than you get it wrong.

Second: Not everything is about the parent’s competence. You can be the best parent in the world, and yet your child will still get very fussy just before he or she learns to crawl. Children go through tough times just before they reach a developmental milestone; these are called developmental crises. You cannot fix these problems for your kids, but you can make them a whole lot worse if you make decisions during those times based on your own fear of parental inadequacy.

Third: The only normal families with competent parents are the families you haven’t met. As soon as you meet them, you will discover that they, too, are giraffes on ice skates.  

The white envelope is back on my desk. It had been misfiled, and I ran into it while searching for a syllabus. I was going to take it up to the attic and tuck it into the box of custody documents that I have kept if the children wanted or needed to see them.

But now I am not sure if I should include it with the other files. I am still not convinced that I was ever the mother described in those evaluations. And if I was, I sure as hell don’t want to be compared against her now. Mercifully, the true measures of my parenting are out there living, working, and loving.

And from what I can tell, incompetent parents can raise some pretty awesome people.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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