Of all the roles we take on, there is one that should be highlighted and brought more into focus. It is a role on which conferences and workshops could be held, with the same frequency and intensity as Leadership, Education, Functional or Life Skills ones. It is a role that nearly all adults fulfil, whether self-parenting, parenting children, educating or counselling.
A characteristic of the ‘Parent’ role is that it is one in which there is no hierarchy. One parent cannot perform at a higher or lower level than another. It is a role where there is often little or no choice involved in who gets into a family structure and there is no quality-control on the ‘raw material’ that a parent is given to work with. None of the ‘products' are the same. There is no process by which parents and children are assessed and paired up based on competence required for the specific role. On top of that, the skills required to raise even one child change significantly with each stage of the child’s development, and no two children experience life or turn out the same way. Most importantly, it is a role which fundamentally influences what happens in future generations, similar to how our parents influenced who we are and how we live.
Being a parent has probably always been tough, and while we may have thrived under, tolerated or fallen victim to our parents’ styles of parenting, the circumstances in which we parent have changed, and keep changing, dramatically. Our generation of parents is generally much more involved in our children’s lives than our parents were in ours. This, along with our children having access to the same information (amongst other things) that we have access to as adults, at the same time and often with a greater capacity for navigating the technological advancements, has brought on a whole new set of challenges.
There is also a growing awareness of what we do and say - that which we may not have paid attention to or acknowledged the impact of in the past - as part of an increase in focus on all human rights. This includes a focus on equality, unity, freedom of choice and individuality, which could also include a rebellion against transforming elements of modern life such as ‘being managed’, paternalism (not fathers, paternalism) and the constraints of patriarchal religious beliefs. We can overlay this with the increase in, or at least increased awareness of, our mental health diversity, particularly (but not limited to) anxiety and depression. All of this, in turn, makes the challenge of parenting increasingly complex.
Despite all of this change in our world, in our own homes and behind closed doors, there is often a lag in the equalisation of power. As individuals, we may not see the relevance of the changes, often causing us to struggle to embrace them in our personal capacity. The knowledge of ‘how things worked in the past’ clashes with the uncertainty of where the changes will lead us and certainty of how the world will look, even in 5 years time, let alone 50, does not exist. This uncertainty increases the pressure we feel as parents to nurture and prepare our children for…for what? We cannot return to the past, except to reflect on previous successes and failures and to gain insight. We do not have a clear view of the future and we are dealing with an incredibly complex present. All of these factors add to the pressure already built into ‘just’ being alive, let alone fulfilling our roles as parents.
As is human nature, we often look for the source of this pressure outside of ourselves - or who is to blame - and our search is rewarded with many suspects. It is social media, it is the school, it is the curriculum developers, the government, the corporates, and it is the children themselves who may participate in the competition to stand out, withdraw or rebel. It is, however, the expression of this pressure from our children that may be alerting us to how much pressure there is, as we are often more in tune with them than we are with ourselves. However, we are less likely to be able to support them if we are not able to manage our own pressure. Acknowledging this is a start.
It took me a while to acknowledge my own contribution. I believed I was doing everything I could to alleviate the pressure in my own and my children’s lives, yet I was not successful, no matter what I did, and together, we spiralled. It was this that made me question just how much of it I ‘could’ or ‘should’ own. The realisation was this: the more pressure I put on myself to be a ‘good’ parent, the more pressure I was putting on my children to be the product of ‘good’ parenting.
The overt pressures I was trying to reduce included the more obvious ones of wanting them to “do well”, to be academic, sporty, nice, social or socially acceptable (according to what I believe is socially acceptable). However, the pressure that I was not conscious of was more subtle, but possibly as intense, if not more so (as it was less visible), than the overt pressure parents are traditionally seen to put on their offspring. My pressure was an almost-desperate need for them to be able to perform what are considered everyday activities without overwhelming anxiety. I wanted them to be able to go into a shopping centre, to eat at a restaurant, to write an exam or even ‘just’ to walk into school.
I suspect the sources of the subtle and overt pressures are similar, as I realised that the pressure I put on my children was linked to my own needs as much as theirs. This definitely contributed to their stress, because for a sensitive person, the idea of letting someone we love down by not being able to match their expectations (even if those expectations are not articulated or even conscious) can be excruciating, and there is a fine line between encouragement and pressure. It was not so much that I should have learned to let go, as I know that I have a role to play in their wellbeing, but I had not fully realised the distinction: it is their wellbeing.
The next generation will grow up - in this wild world - sometimes despite our efforts to manage their progress. We have the opportunity to influence the capacity of future generations by focusing more on what we can do rather than what they or ‘the system’ “should” do differently. Given that no two sets of circumstances are the same, it feels fruitless to compare ourselves to or compete with each other in the parenting space.
However, there is so much opportunity for development if we share experiences that may be valuable to each other, as there are definitely trends in the challenges, and possibilities in the breakthroughs. Further still, we are well-positioned to see issues and opportunities with ‘the system’, be it the education, economic or eco system, as we are linked, along with our children, to all of them. Because of this, we can work with and influence them more effectively if we do so with a collective understanding and a space in which we are able to talk about this critical role.
I believe that it is time to engage with each other more overtly, rather than trying to work it all out alone.