What's stopping us from being happy?

Feeling guilty, being afraid of being judged, comparing ourselves to others and seeking perfection: these are feelings that make the lives of many parents miserable. What can we do to avoid them so that we can be happier and more at peace with the way we choose to raise our children? What are we doing, without realizing it, that prevents us from experiencing the joy of being parents? Here’s an opportunity to become aware of the ways of being of a great number of parents, in varying degrees.


Feeling guilty

Feeling guilty can sometimes be useful. “It can motivate parents to question the way they do things and their own behaviours.”

“At the end of each day, I tell myself that I didn’t spend enough time with my kids, that I didn’t have any fun with them,” complains Marie-Ève, mother to 6-year-old Mia, 2-year-old Nolan, 7-month-old Romain and a 13-year-old teenager. “I’ve got so many things to do! And it’ll only get worse once my maternity leave ends. I also feel guilty for imposing consequences on my kids when they misbehave and for making my youngest eat store-bought baby food, when I made it at home for the others.”

What parent hasn’t experienced these typical feelings of guilt? Anika, for example, works from home, which lets 6-year-old Ann-Charlotte and 4-year-old Louis-Félix enjoy more relaxed mornings. But she still feels pangs of guilt when she has to bring her kids in to daycare earlier than usual, even if it’s for a good reason: she volunteers for the Breakfast Club twice a month. On the other hand, Claudine feels guilty for not playing with 5-year-old Thomas and 2-year-old Leah enough. “I don’t always have the time or the inclination to crawl around on all fours or to play hide-and-seek.”

Geneviève Henry, a psychosocial worker for the Parents Help Line, receives numerous calls from parents experiencing all sorts of guilt for a thousand and one reasons. “Raising kids is a huge responsibility. Parents want to do the right things, but are afraid of making mistakes or of not being able to give the best to their children. This is why they feel guilty.” In other instances, this guilt comes from shouldering too much of the burden and forgetting that being a parent is also a team effort.

But feeling guilty can sometimes be useful. It can motivate parents to question the way they do things and their own behaviours,” explains psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. “This thought process can lead to changes that may be necessary, or on the contrary, can help a parent realize that there’s no need to feel guilty.”

That said, if guilt becomes too overwhelming, there’s a problem. If you’re under the impression that you never do anything right, you may end up doubting your parenting abilities. As a result, you may lose some of your self-esteem. And because you’re a model for your children, this may in turn mean that your child will have a harder time developing a positive self-image.

Feeling guilty about everything also leads to stress and fatigue. These emotions then take a huge toll on you, and make it difficult to think things through, come up with appropriate decisions or simply enjoy happy family moments. “Because they feel guilty, some parents overcompensate by becoming too permissive,” adds Geneviève Henry. “But children need rules and routines to feel safe.”

Some strategies to keep the guilt at bay:
  • Allow yourself to try things. It’s normal to not always get everything right the first time. To know what’s best for your child, you may need to try different ways of doing things. Give yourself the right to make mistakes, because it’s more than likely that you’ll get things wrong sometimes.
  • Keep things in perspective. Most of the time, the consequences are not as dramatic as you imagine. Is it the end of the world if your child has a stain on his clothes today? If you don’t like playing toy cars with him? If you arrived a little late? Ask yourself: what does any of this mean in a lifetime? This will help you gain some perspective.
  • Enjoy each small moment with your child. Your daily routines and rituals are great opportunities to spend quality time with your child (when he tells you about his day at supper, during bath time, or at story time right before bed, etc.). You can also turn everyday tasks into a game, as Claudine does when she asks Thomas and Leah to help her set the table. Some other ideas: have your child count the number of cans of food that need to be put on the shelf, sing nursery rhymes while giving him his bath, ask your son to fold the towels while you fold the rest of the laundry, etc.
  • Accept help from others. You don’t have to carry the weight of parental responsibilities alone. It’s a good idea to let others take over when you feel the need.
  • Take time for yourself. Doing something you enjoy (taking a walk, visiting a friend, playing a sport, etc.) will help you recharge your batteries. The stronger you are emotionally, the easier it is not to let yourself be overwhelmed by guilt.

Making comparisons

Making comparisons is part of human nature. We compare ourselves to other parents. We want to know how our child compares to other children her age.

Making comparisons is part of human nature. We compare ourselves to other parents. We want to know how our child compares to other children her age. We try to determine what’s normal and what isn’t: can our child throw the ball like her friend at daycare? Is she calmer or more rambunctious?

“The problem is that parents tend to compare themselves with the strengths of others without considering their own abilities or personality, or those of their child,” notes Geneviève Henry. “The result is that they undermine their self esteem, and become anxious and dissatisfied. Making these kinds of comparisons prevents us from appreciating what we have, what we are, and what our child is. It puts the breaks on happiness!”

“Your brother was able to tie his shoelaces at your age.” “Your cousin isn’t as noisy as you are.” Comparing children is especially unhealthy. Between brothers and sisters, it stirs up jealousy. And it always affects self-esteem. The child feels put down and not good enough. By being told repeatedly that she is less “this” or too “that,” the child may simply stop making any effort to improve since she doesn’t feel like she’s appreciated for what she is. It’s therefore advisable to try to avoid making comparisons between children altogether.

3 tips to stop making comparisons:
  • Recognize your strengths. If you hate doing arts and crafts, why compare yourself to your sister-in-law, who spends all her weekends doing arts and crafts with her kids? You must surely have your own strengths and interests that you can pass on to your child.
  • Remember that your child is unique. She has her own pace and personality. If your daughter still isn’t walking at 14 months, so what? If she’s in good health and everything else seems fine, she’ll take her first steps when she’s ready. And what if your son doesn’t like playing with blocks, even if you bought him his first set at two years old? He surely has other talents and interests.
  • You are your only yardstick. How can you become a better parent? “Instead of always comparing yourself to others, it’s far more productive to only measure yourself against yourself and gear your improvements based on your own abilities,” recommends psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. “Setting and reaching realistic goals is validating. And it’s better than complaining because someone else is better than you at something. The same goes for your child: the important thing is to see how she progresses according to her own curve, not that of others.

Fear of being judged

We sometimes feel targeted by other people’s judgment or criticism of our parenting attitudes, life choices or children’s behaviours.

“When my first son was born, I had a friend who would give me lots of advice about how to raise my son. That put a lot of pressure on me,” says Geneviève, the mother of 9-year-old Jacob, 4-year-old Elliot and 2-year old Raphaël. “I was afraid she’d think I was a bad mother if I wasn’t able to do everything like her.”

Karina, for her part, works long hours. Her partner, whose job is a little less demanding, takes incredibly good care of their 5-year-old daughter. “People say things to me like: ‘What will you do when your daughter has homework?’ or ‘What do you mean you never have supper with your daughter?’ My male colleagues never get those kinds of comments!”

We sometimes feel targeted by other people’s judgment or criticism of our parenting attitudes, life choices or children’s behaviours. Geneviève Henry finds it hard to avoid it completely. “The way you react as a parent can’t always make everyone happy. Faced with the same situations, some people may do the same thing you did, others, the complete opposite.”

It’s better to stay true to your values and what you believe is best for your child, without letting yourself be influenced by what you think others think.

If you’re constantly afraid of being judged, it’ll be harder for you to feel comfortable in your role as a parent and to make the best decisions for your family. Geneviève understood this with the birth of her second son. “I finally found confidence in myself and made my own decision about the type of mother I wanted to be. As long as my children are loved, safe, have the proper guidance and everything they need, everything is fine!”

Some strategies to stop being afraid of what others will think:
  • Reframe what you’re thinking. Sometimes, people really are judging us, but at other times, it’s the product of our imaginations. Why not get into the habit of asking yourself if your thoughts are based on evidence? Did that person actually make a comment? If the answer is no, ask yourself the following questions: “When other people see my son throwing a tantrum, are they really thinking badly about me? And if so, is it really that big of a deal?”
  • Remember that you know your child best. You are in the best position to make any decisions regarding your child. It’s obviously a good idea to be well informed and to seek advice on how to take care of him and guide him properly, but in the end, the decisions are yours to make.
  • See criticism as an opportunity to learn. It’s easier if you don’t take all criticism as a personal attack, suggests psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. “Sometimes criticism can really help us improve. If you remain open to it, you may be able to benefit from the experiences of others.”
  • Stay away from people who are hypercritical. If someone judges your parenting skills without adding anything constructive, the wisest choice may be to keep your distance. Same thing with social media. In some discussion forums, parents are quick to judge. Why continue to seek them out?
Are dads happier?
Do fathers find it easier to be happy than mothers? According to a study led by the University of British Columbia and two American universities published in 2012, the answer is “yes.” Fathers are also said to be happier than men who don’t have children.
But this finding is not unanimous. “I see just as many men in my practice as women who put pressure on themselves or who are anxious about their parenting skills,” says psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. He believes it has more to do with personality than gender.
Among women, however, researchers have noted that having children or not makes no difference. This may be because mothers take on more responsibilities and duties than fathers. The debate continues.

The important thing is to set realistic expectations about your role as a parent.

Seeking perfection

Social pressure is intense for women, who need to succeed on so many levels: work, love, parenting. Fathers are also starting to feel this pressure, but the perfect father model is not yet as visible in the public space.

The perfect parents, or rather, the perfect mother is everywhere: on television, in magazines and in our collective imagination. We still look for this “mother-from-the-good-old-days,” who dedicated every single minute of her day to her family, in the mirror. Or we hope to emulate Caillou’s mom, who always remains calm in the face of her son’s misbehaviour. Or mothers who are actresses, singers or models, with their swimsuit bodies and children who appear to have it all. And let’s not forget all those ads showcasing the ideal family: parents who are always well dressed and smiling, with neat houses, well-behaved children, clean cars…

Social pressure is intense for women, who need to succeed on so many levels: work, love, parenting,” notes Francine Ferland. Fathers are also starting to feel this pressure, but the perfect father model is not yet as visible in the public space.

The problem is that perfection just doesn’t exist. If you try to follow unrealistic models, the only outcome will be disappointment and dissatisfaction. If this is your state of mind, you won’t experience any pleasure in being a parent. “You’ll soon reach the end of your rope, which will only lead to more stress and irritability,” says Nicolas Chevrier. “You could also end up putting too much pressure on your child, who won’t always be able to measure up.” This could all have a negative impact on his self-esteem.

When you read a story to your child or when you’re playing with him, try to focus all your attention on him, rather than mentally going over your grocery list...

Parents are human beings with strengths and weaknesses, who try to do their best, but who must also give themselves permission to make mistakes,” says Geneviève Henry. “And since children learn by observing, that’s the best model to offer them.”

Here’s what you can do to make peace with your feeling of imperfection:
  • Let go. Does everything always need to be done to perfection? It’s important to clean your house, of course, but does it really need to sparkle? “A little dust never made any family miserable,” says Francine Ferland, who recommends that we lower our expectations to a more realistic level.
  • Reassess your priorities. You’ll benefit by figuring out what’s really important to you and then making your choices accordingly. See if what you’re doing is essential. Can you eliminate it or spend less time on certain tasks or activities? Is it more important that your child participates in an organized activity or that he spends more time with family?
  • Think of yourself. To be a better parent, you need “me” time, too! “When my first son was born, I never took any time for myself because it made me feel like a bad mother,” says Geneviève. “With two kids and a bit of experience under my belt, I understood that to be a good mom, I needed to find the balance between my children’s needs and my own.”
  • Talk to someone. This may give you the chance to put words to your feelings of doubt and help you gain perspective. Talking with your partner or other parents can also help you out of your isolation, help you to share your concerns and consolidate your parenting skills. A professional, a help group or even a book can also be useful.

Forgetting the joys of being a parent

Do you have a hard time enjoying special moments with your child? That’s not surprising: the daily grind is often a race against the clock that leaves little time to simply enjoy being a parent.

“I find it hard to simply enjoy playing with my kids,” worries Marie-Ève. “I look at the time and keep thinking about everything else I still have to do.” Do you, like Marie-Ève, have a hard time enjoying special moments with your child? That’s not surprising: the daily grind is often a race against the clock that leaves little time to simply enjoy being a parent.

The good news is: experiencing the moment doesn’t require more of your time. It’s just a matter of learning to be aware of what is happening in the here and now and focusing on what you’re doing: nothing else. Granted, this takes practice. “But it’s good for you because it forces you to forget all your worries for just a moment and strengthen the bond with your child,” notes Geneviève Henry. It’s also a great way to reduce stress.

Feeling competent
  • Specialists agree that children don’t need a perfect parent, only a good enough parent. In other words, a parent with strengths and weaknesses. “The most important thing is love, guidance, safety and consistency in discipline and rules,” says occupational therapist and author Francine Ferland.
  • In his book L’estime de soi des parents (Parents’ self esteem), psychoeducator and remedial teacher Germain Duclos tells the story of a mother who believed she had no parenting skills. He asked her: Do you feed your child properly? Do you dress him appropriately? Do you show him you love him? Do you set certain boundaries with him? Do you give him your time? “This mother answered ‘yes’ to all these questions,” he writes. “She finally understood that she was a competent parent even though she wasn’t perfect, which, by the way, none of us are.”
  • Believing in yourself, trusting your instinct and paying attention to the needs of your child is what will help you slowly develop the feeling of being a competent parent.
A few tips that may help you to appreciate the present moment:
  • Find inspiration in your child. “When children are busy with something, they don’t think about what happened yesterday, or what they’ll do tomorrow,” says Francine Ferland, occupational therapist and author. “For them, there is only now, and it takes their full attention.”
  • Stop negative thinking. A good habit to start is to become aware of your thoughts and, if they are negative, to return to the present moment. If you have a tendency to dramatize and worry about everything, the repercussions can be detrimental to your mental health.
  • Create little rituals. “Why not add some fun family rituals to your routine such as Sunday morning pancakes, Saturday night picnics in the living room or a story before bed?” suggests Nicolas Chevrier.
  • You’re allowed to make mistakes: human beings are imperfect.
  • You need time for yourself. Doing something you enjoy helps you recharge your batteries and control your emotions.
  • Instead of comparing yourself to others, use yourself as a yardstick and gear your improvements based on your own abilities.
Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, April 2014
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Sylvain Coutu, psycho-education and psychology professor, UQO