By Georgette Harrison, LPC
Can you remember that moment when you first realized that you were about to become a parent? That positive pregnancy test, that call from the adoption or foster agency, the news from the fertility doctor or surrogate? Can you recall the feelings, thoughts, images that flooded your heart and brain as you became accustomed to the idea that you would now be bringing a child into your home? Do you recall those moments of joy, elation, and also panic, ambivalence and everything in between? Every parent-to-be experiences that time period differently, depending on their circumstances. For some, the time may span over 40 weeks. For others, it might be 24 weeks, and for others, it might be 24 hours. But it is undeniable that, to some degree or another, we all experienced and played with the fantasy of who we would be as parents and caregivers.
If we were to examine those fantasies and images, we would also notice that we didn’t just think about who we were going to be as parents. Those fantasies also included some hopes and dreams about who this child would be. Would your child look like you or the other partner in the equation? Would your child be easy to soothe, sleep through the night, and eat all their broccoli? Did you imagine hearing lots of little footsteps running down the hallway to greet you in the morning? Would the child be the prima ballerina or the star football player you had once, long ago, aspired to be? Would your child grow up to be healthy, happy and Harvard-bound? Might the child be a second chance to do over a parent-child relationship that had gone awry years before? Maybe a hope that a strained marriage or partnership could be salvaged over the mutual love and affection you would have for your child? Perhaps your chance to provide for a child in the way you felt you were not provided for?
Most, if not all, caregivers have had these fantasies. But how do you make room for the real baby or child, particularly if reality clashes with fantasy? The easy to soothe, champion sleeper you imagined might actually turn out to be a fussy, colicky infant who only seems to calm down after 3 hours of soothing them to sleep. The adopted or foster child who you welcomed into your home might have a long history of trauma that makes it difficult for them to trust that you want to care for them. The teenager might evoke such strong negative feelings in you that you end up parenting in exactly the opposite way you imagined you would years before. Fantasy also clashes with reality when you are raising a child with a medical condition, or a child who is not meeting their developmental milestones, or when your child receives a psychiatric or neurological diagnosis.
When fantasy clashes with reality, we might deny that our fantasy ever existed. We might unconsciously continue to try to mold our child (and ourselves) into the parent-child dyad we imagined we would be. We might be continually disappointed by all the ways in which our child doesn’t compare or measure up to others and/or our expectations, and how we, as parents, have failed. We might, at times, regret becoming parents.
Part of the reason we might react in these ways is because we don’t acknowledge that the fantasy of “the ideal child for us” (because everyone’s ideal child is different) was near and dear to our hearts. There was meaning behind our fantasy. We must mourn the loss of that fantasy in order to make room for the child in front of us, in all of their wonderful, quirky, irksome, rage-inducing, heart-breaking, loving, hilarious ways. It’s hard to see our children for who they are if we can’t say goodbye to the fantasy of who we thought they would be. It’s also hard for us as parents to constantly feel that this whole parenthood thing is not only harder than we thought it would be, but that we keep falling short in what we think are very significant ways.
The idea of mourning the child we imagined we would have may seem counterintuitive, perhaps even detrimental. After all, we love our children and would move heaven and earth for them. Mourning your fantasy does not take away your love for your child, and it does not mean that you are a bad parent. In fact, making your fantasy explicit, bringing it to the light so that you can look at it, examine it, and say goodbye to it, can help relieve the distress and tension that happens when reality and fantasy don’t overlap. It makes the distress understandable and manageable so that we can talk about it. We no longer wonder why we’re reacting so strongly to our child’s “failings” or our own “shortcomings.” As Mr. Rogers once said: “Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they becomes less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
When we do this, we might also relieve our child’s sense that they are somehow missing the mark; that they seem to always fall short of some ideal that has not been made explicit. They’ll know, in the most essential way, that their parents see them for who they are, and love them in their own unique, imperfect, wonderful ways. That perfection is not only not required to be loved, but that imperfection is to be expected from both children and parents… and that the parent-child bond endures through all of that. After all, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
If you are worried about your child’s development, or that the process of being a good-enough parent for your child is leaving you feeling at a loss, we are here for you. Don’t hesitate to call the Child Guidance Center of Southern CT at 203-324-6127 for assistance. More information is available on our website: https://childguidancect.org/
Ms. Harrison is the Director of Clinical and Community Partnerships at the Child Guidance Center of Southern CT. She earned her Master of Arts and Master of Education degrees in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds an Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Connecticut, a trainer for the Attachment-Regulation-Competency treatment model, a rostered trauma-informed Child-Parent Psychotherapy clinician, as well as a Circle of Security Parenting Facilitator.