When you think of the ideal parent, what (or perhaps who) do you imagine?
Perhaps it’s someone warm and loving who feels safe and strong.
Maybe you think of being fiercely and unconditionally loved. Or of feeling supported, guided and inspired to go out and explore the world.
Quite possibly it involves images of a parent and child together, spending quality time, playing sport or games, talking, exploring, building or making things, or enjoying days out or holidays.
Parents undeniably have a lot to live up to and when they don’t fulfil that role, for whatever reason, it can be hard, or even impossible, to forgive and forget – often because of those perfectly understandable expectations.
Our parents may love us fiercely and totally, go without food to feed us, abandon their dreams to help ours take flight and sacrifice time, energy, health and sometimes happiness to be the parent they think they should be.
But parenting often leaves scars – on everyone involved. To quote the poet Philip Larkin:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
Because we’re only human. We clash, we misunderstand, we don’t listen, we fail, we don’t try hard enough and we get things wrong.
Decades after a thoughtless, angry, tired, dismissive or poorly judged comment or action from a parent, the child may still be navigating the ripple effect. And frequently, as Larkin says, it wasn’t the parent’s intention to hurt or upset. It just happened, in a moment of inattention or weakness.
And then, years later, our success as adults is based on our ability to parent ourselves. And if we haven’t had a positive experience of being parented or helpful rule models to lead by example, we have to work out what that looks like for ourselves.
How good are we at self-discipline, how often do we do what’s right for us, how healthy are we being, how much exercise are we getting and how effective are we at caring for the parts of ourselves that still feel so very childlike: the fearful, insecure, vulnerable or neglected parts?
You can probably identify the times when you haven’t done the job properly. Those times when you’ve failed to listen to what you really need, judged yourself, criticised yourself or even become aggressive and abusive – and taken it out on you.
Being your own good parent can heal past wounds, but it requires strength and determination as well as all the qualities we expected and needed from our own parents.
We have to provide our own words of warning, be our own teacher, keep ourselves safe and warm and love ourselves unconditionally.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” said another poet (e.e. cummings) and all the love in the world from other people won’t keep us on our feet if we’re not there for ourselves, showing up over and over again.
Equally, if we abdicate from the responsibility of loving, caring for and nurturing ourselves and instead look to those around us to do it, we’re like children again, with all the dependencies and lack of freedom that this entails. When we put our well-being in the hands of others and need them to make us feel OK, we lose our power.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that love and nurturing from others aren’t essential. Shared intimacy, passion, warmth, wisdom and connection is a massive part of what makes life beautiful and can make us feel stronger, happier and more alive.
But when we love ourselves as unconditionally as we’d want a parent to, with the same fierceness and commitment, we open up the potential to make ourselves truly happy too.
Image: Szilvia Basso / Unsplash