My husband and I would never be cast as the perfect parents in those old TV shows. That's OK.
Here's what I know for sure about parenting: That after 17 years, I don't know as much as I think I do, as much as I'd like. And, that the mental list I keep of my parenting failures continues to grow. Sometimes daily.
My niece recently celebrated her first baby's first birthday, and although she is not failing at anything, the honest tone of her Facebook posts reminds me of how hopeful and self-assured I was as a new parent -- then that I wouldn't do anything too wrong, that I would not repeat any of my own parents' mistakes. Looking back now at that skewed, doe-eyed view of parenting—that my husband and I could, by will and the right combination of baby books and intuition, do it all so well – I hardly recognize myself.
I want to assure my niece that she'll do just fine, mistakes and all, that failing occasionally is not an option with parenting, it's a given. I'd guess that a parent without a mental "FAIL!" list is basically delusional.
My own parenting FAIL list, thus far, includes:
1. Not enforcing the "no TV on school nights" rule. It worked out fine the first few years, and as the dieting experts say, it works if you work it. But frankly it was too much work. Frank and I finally admitted limits, not a ban, was the way to go.
2. Over-parenting. I always thought, pre-kids, that I would be a relaxed, confident, low-maintenance mother who would trust her kids and the universe and would not be a controlling presence. Ha! Nearly right from the start, I did too much, watched too closely, interfered when I thought I was helping. It's hard to change, but at least I see the patterns now.
3. Not breaking the TV-food connection. Mindful of the link between weight gain and eating in front of the television, we used the purchase of a new leather couch to prohibit eating in the family room. Buy hey, we couldn't enforce a rule we both routinely broke, almost daily, in full view of the kids. The fact that no one in the family eats in the bedrooms or the recently renovated basement "man cave" is victory enough.
4. Becoming a pet-owning family. When our sons were wee, I brought home a 3-week-old guinea pig, nine ounces of cuddle. For a while, we enjoyed having Charlie around, but the truth is we were a failure as a pet-owning family. I felt bad about the whole episode, but eventually remembered what my father said when I was wait-listed at my first choice college: Failing means you tried something you cared about.
5. Not yelling. I yell. Sometimes a lot. But unlike my own childhood, my kids will never know the feeling of a hand on them in anger. So my failure to stay calm and not yell my head off seems a healthy compromise in breaking that chain. The yelling doesn't veer into verbal abuse, and my kids know it's just my steam-release valve. Each day I try to yell less. Depending on the time of the month, I sometimes succeed.
6. Modeling a healthy regular physical fitness routine. Six years ago, when I gained back 80 pounds I'd lost, my daily walks and gym visits stopped. While Frank skis a few times a year and takes on a 25 mile bike ride occasionally, as a couple, we're not that active. The boys still swim, bike, and play driveway hockey, but I think we've failed at showing them how to incorporate fitness into adulthood.
7. Not arguing in front of the kids. We do. Living with another person every day (in our case for 24+ years by now) inevitably means disagreements, but also compromise, apologies, and making up. We don't feel the need to sanitize the environment and lead kids to believe marriage equals total bliss and full time agreement. We may be wrong here, as an abundance of research suggests.
8. Letting them quit, sometimes. We've let the boys, on rare occasions, quit some "enriching" activities they'd signed on for, tried hard at, but eventually decided didn't fit. As someone who was forced into eight years of hated piano lessons, I sympathized. But now I wonder if each allowed quit was a mistake.
9. Not recording their childhoods enough. We made a conscious decision that filming our kids, assembling scrapbooks, and organizing online photo galleries actually took time away from our kids. Now, I miss having more visual mementos and wonder guiltily if the boys will miss it one day too.
This list could certainly be five times as long. Pretty regularly, we fail at a lot of other parenting stuff too, both important and trivial. Maybe, if I tried, I could come up a parallel list of parenting stuff we do well, but I think that the failures list is more representative of who we are as parents – flawed, figuring it out as we go along for better or worse.