Alyson Schafer is a Toronto-based mother and parenting coach who has a master's degree in counselling psychology. Her first book, Breaking the Good Mom Myth (Wiley Canada, 2006), looks at how mothering is influenced by our desire to keep up with society's -- and our own -- ideas of what a good mom is. Here, she tells CanadianLiving.com about pressures moms face and how to let go of them.
Q. What is the good mom myth?
A. The myths that surround being a good mom are reoccurring beliefs that mothers have that actually interfere with our parenting. For example, today we strive toward perfection in parenting, and think, "If I don't parent perfectly then my status and my worth will fall." The overall premise of the book is that our ego is invested in parenting and this undermines our efforts. We want to be perceived as being "good" moms and worry that we will look bad to others if we don't handle well, say, a child's tantrum in public. So long as we are concerned with our personal status, we obey whatever current cultural myth prevails, whether it is having a fat baby or one that sleeps well, because we don't want to look less than other mothers.
Q. Do you see this desire in fathers?
A. Yes, but the myths can be different. One myth that remains is that good dads are good providers; if you can't put food on the table and clothe the children, then you are not a real man, a good father. It's a terrible burden. There are men who are staying home and raising children, but they are still in the minority.
Q. How does our desire to do the right thing as moms hinder us?
A. We used to blow off kids' little fights but now we have a zero tolerance policy for any sort of tussling or aggressive behaviour. So the good mother thinks that it is her job to have a no-conflict home and it is her job to ensure her kids don't fight and love each other. So what does she do? She jumps in all the time, and by interfering in her kids' relationships she actually creates the very thing that she is trying to avoid: animosity. The difficulty of stepping into a kids' fight is that you see one child's participation -- one child is the aggressor, the instigator -- and that creates resentment between the two kids. So how do you overcome the feeling that you have to be the peacemaker all the time? Ignore your kids when they fight. It is their relationship to own, resolve the conflict and figure out how to cooperate. If you are going to get involved, make sure the consequences are equal, such as "I am turning off the TV because you are fighting over the converter. When you figure out how to get along I will come back and turn it on again."
Q. But it's tough for us to stand back and not jump into our kids' lives, isn't it?
A. Yes, it is, but we need to because we read many things into situations, such as "this person is a malicious little so-and-so." There is quite a lot of discussion in [my] book about why children misbehave and it is not because they are mean or trying to stick it to us, but they behave from a place of being discouraged; it is their solution to a problem they have such as the need for attention, power, or revenge.
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Q. You speak in the book about our self-worth as mothers being attached to our kids. One would think that with more women working outside the home that would have declined somewhat. Has it?
A. We are getting slightly better at not seeing our children as a reflection of our parenting ability, but we are not there yet. We still think that how well we are performing the task of mothering is based on the children that we are developing and helping to grow. If the child is good and well behaved, we have done a good job at mothering. The problem with this is that it doesn't allow for, or take into account, the individuality of children. That's why in the book I refer to children of parents who have this mindset as chattel. I want parents to think about this and say, "that's disgusting, my children are not my chattel." No, they are not; they are individuals and we cannot completely control them because they are their own people. Yes, we can influence children, but there is a limit to our influence and we need to recognize it. There are all sorts of mothers who have kids with behavioural problems that suffer terrible, terrible guilt. They want them diagnosed with something such as ADHD; to put a label on them so that they are not to blame.
Q. How can we break some of the myths that we are operating on?
A. Part of what that I am trying to get across is this idea that we need to appreciate that every human being is of worth; our worth and our kids' worth is not contingent upon performance. Whenever I have a parent who is having a hard time letting go, it comes down to their concern that they are going to reveal themselves as being inferior, incapable, less than other parents, yet that belief completely interferes with any positive parenting. When you realize your self-worth can't be changed or altered, it allows you to raise kids while respecting their individuality because you give up the need to be competitive and prove you have worth as a parent. It is a gift to yourself and a wonderful gift to pass on to your kids because it frees them up to fulfill their full potential.
Kathryn Dorrell is the Family life editor at Canadian Living magazine.
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