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Heffner column: A bad mother?

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Cheboygan Daily Tribune

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Much has been written about the pressure parents have been under as a result of the pandemic, with school attendance occurring remotely at best, mothers back to full time child care combined with attempts to fulfill their own work responsibilities remotely. At the same time mothers feel responsible for maintaining the health of their family including making sure that children are following required safety precautions such as mask wearing and distance from others.

It is impressive to see so many children from the youngest to teenagers wearing masks outside, even when not with parents or other adults. So it was interesting to come across a mother expressing despair about the mom COVID has made her, one trying to control her children’s activities and time spent with friends.

Many of the feelings expressed have been echoed by other parents. Trying to be sure one’s children are following safety rules while worrying that other parents are not doing the same. Children reinforcing that fear by insisting that no one is making as “big a deal” of it as their parents. Worrying about children’s contacts with their friends while worrying about how they are being affected by all the restrictions on what were once normal activities.

Mothers are experts at feeling guilty, often over something one did or said - or didn’t do or say - and goes along with the worry that one’s actions as a parent had - or will have - dire consequences for one’s child. The fear is that one’s behavior as a parent might damage a child in a way that would interfere with his functioning in the future. This is the fear that is being expressed now in relation to the role of parents in restricting children’s activities and trying to make sure they are following safety requirements.

Mothers assume great powers in believing in their capacity to damage their children by what they say and do. But the other assumption here is that children are so fragile that a wrong word from mom can do irreparable damage. This speaks to a more general anxiety about the significance of negative experiences and the feeling that children must be protected from anything that seems unpleasant, frustrating or upsetting.

This, in turn, suggests that it is possible to go through life without having such experiences, and that mothers are responsible for making that happen - for creating a perfect life for one’s child. We know that unfortunately there are too many children who grow up in far from optimal environments. The larger point, though, is no matter under what circumstances children are raised, life itself requires the ability to withstand hurts and obstacles. As parents, we wish we could protect our children from pain, but that is a totally unrealistic goal.

Our children gain strength from facing such experiences and finding they can master them. We hope they will not face more than they can handle at particular stages of development, and if they do, we can provide the support they may need. Every experience we have in life has an effect on shaping us into who we are or may become. Every individual makes use of these experiences in different ways as part of his or her personality and temperament.

There is no guilt in behaving responsibly as parents, even though we may not like our children’s reactions or the way that makes us feel about ourselves as parents.

Feeling guilty is not about the children. It is about us. It is about our unrealistic demands of ourselves as parents, and about a lack of belief in our children’s resilience.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.