The Parenting Gap
The real compared to the role.
By Bina Breitner
Johnny needs his father to be affectionate and steady. When his father drinks too much, has outbursts of anger, and pushes people out of his way, Johnny is frightened.
On the other hand, Johnny's father, whose name is Chuck, had some disturbing experiences in the military, isn't sure he's going to keep his job, and comes from a family with a history of alcoholism. He didn't get what he needed from his father, and sometimes it feels unfair to him that he has to try so hard to give Johnny what he needs. There are times when he just can't do it.
You could say that Johnny has two fathers — the real fellow, with his complex problems, and the role of Father, an ideal parent whom Johnny would like (and needs) Chuck to be. I call the real version "dad" and the ideal version "Father." Dad is an imperfect, unique individual; Father is the archetypal figure in the fairy tale who embodies a category or role — the bad witch, the fairy godmother, wise king, loving princess, prodigal brother, etc. These archetypes exist in every family and every relationship, and they're especially powerful in the inner world of children. Mother and Father should be wise and kind. They tell us who we are, the Truth about life, how much we're worth, how much we should take care of others, what we can expect from the world around us, whether we're competent and lovable, and so forth. As children, we look into the mirror of our parents' eyes and behavior and learn who we are and how we fit in.
What a huge responsibility for the parents! They can't possibly be all that, all the time, to their children. So what are they supposed to do with the gap between the ideal parents their children need and the reality of themselves? They aren't archetypes; they aren't ideal. They're Chuck and Doreen.
(Please note that I'm not addressing huge discrepancies here, such as those experienced by children who are traumatized or criminally abused by their parents. The chasm between what those children need and what their parents provide requires a more extensive response than anything discussed here.)
Parents who are what we might call "normally inadequate" can begin by acknowledging that they have a double existence in their children's lives. Their role as parents is larger than they are. It isn't even personal. It's an archetype, a psychological function in their children's interior world. They are not just ordinary people to their children. They also happen to occupy the mythic role of parents (Mother and Father). In that role they will communicate lifelong beliefs and memories to their children. So parents can start by being aware that they have this psychological role in the children's lives, which is separate from who they are as individuals.
Second, they can understand and accept that they will never measure up to the parenting ideal. It's a humbling fact, but children change so fast and absorb so much — their growing up is so complex and layered — that no one individual could ever meet all their needs. I remember reading Margaret Mead on life in Samoa, and loving the idea that if a child got fed up with her parents she could trot down the road to live with her aunt for a few months. In an extended family system, a child who can't get a need met by one person turns to another. Such a system assumes that no one person can supply everything, and that each adult can get a break when the child is spending time with another adult. (Hillary Clinton's book, It Takes a Village, recognizes the same reality.)
With or without extended families and villages, parents need to cut themselves some slack. Of course they can (and usually do) try to meet as many of their children's needs as possible. But they'll never be all things to their children.
If these built-in limitations aren't recognized, parents can fall into the trap of blaming themselves inappropriately. Many parents who care about their children tend to feel that they have failed when their child has problems. Please keep the caring and let up on the sense of failure!
Children, too, are dual entities for their parents — both a mythic role (My Child) and a mundane individual (Susie). When Susie doesn't live up to her role as My Child, her parents not only feel like failures; they're also liable to get mad at her. No one benefits from this confusion. Susie is Your Child, but she's also one more little girl doing her best, which is bound to be flawed.
Parents and their children are all more comfortable if the parents acknowledge their own limitations, and those of their children. If they don't, they're creating two big problems: setting everyone up for failure, and giving their children false expectations.
OK, so the parents know that their children have archetypal needs, and recognize that they can't ever measure up. What do they do about the shortfall?
Let's say Chuck takes the depressing route. He stays disappointed in himself as a Father, he's angry at Johnny for needing and demanding so darned much, he sighs and gets on with doing the best he can, perhaps even pretending that it's mostly good enough.
He can compare himself favorably to the neighbors, criticizing Ray next door for not playing as much catch with Ray Jr. as Chuck does with Johnny. He can go to the bar and commiserate with his pals about how hard it is to be a parent. He always calms down after he feels superior to Ray, or supported in his suffering by his buddies: "These kids, they just never stop needing something. I want that boy to grow up to be a man, not some whiny kid in a grown-up body."
When Chuck's had one beer too many, he starts feeling guilty and sorry for himself. "I try," he sighs. "I really love that kid. I'm just no good as a dad." His pals reassure him that he's a great dad, and eventually he goes home anesthetized to his worries. Tomorrow's another day.
There's a better choice. Chuck could look hard into the mirror, take a deep breath, and tell Johnny the truth. That does not mean pouring his heart out, which would overwhelm Johnny and make him feel responsible for his father's feelings. Rather, he can tell Johnny he recognizes that he's scary sometimes, not a perfect father, drinks too much, has unpredictable moods. . . . He would like to do better; he's decided to go to AA and to get some counseling. He knows he isn't everything Johnny needs, and he can apologize for it.
For Johnny, this is a big deal. His dad has taken responsibility for what's not working well between them. Johnny can stop feeling guilty about getting scared, hurt and angry at his Father, whom he needs to love unconditionally. He's no longer bad for wishing his dad could provide more. He's an OK son. The problems aren't his fault! If nothing more than that gets accomplished, Chuck has just saved Johnny years of inner turmoil and later therapy.