Parenting on the Edge:
Imperfect Families in an Imperfect World

Don't try to shield your children from reality. If tonight's the last dinner you have groceries for, they're going to find out.

Our vision of the perfect parent shatters on the rocks of reality. How do you acknowledge that life isn't perfect -- and still give your children hope and ideals?

In my personal belief, we are all trying to do the best we can. When I do something that looks stupid or immoral to you, to me it looks like the best option I have. When you do something that looks plain wrong to me, I'm going to have more luck changing your mind by finding out why you think that's the best option, than by assuming you don't know what's right and proceeding to beat you over the head with it.

Almost all parents want to do what's best for their children, want their children to have better lives than they did, want to build a better future through the generations, make every effort to do so. And in physical reality, we get tired and cranky and stressed and the cat throws up on the boss's lap and Joanie Jr. breaks the TV and the company downsizes and the grocery store upscales and about 72 times a day we do or say something we wish we hadn't, fail to do something we really wanted to do. Our vision of the perfect parent shatters on the rocks of reality. How do you deal with being imperfect? With having imperfect children? How do your children deal with you not being perfect, them not being perfect, life not being perfect -- and keep hope and ideals?

I consider my four months of being homeless to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. One reason is that I witnessed families in some of the most imperfect conditions possible, under extreme stress, and got to see some of what worked and what didn't work to keep them together. It kind of puts the car breaking down on prom night into perspective -- but some of what I learned can apply to stresses short of survival, too.

I'm also adding to this what I learned from growing up with a manic-depressive mother, and being a manic-depressive Mom myself. Some of it I learned late. Hindsight is 20-20. I pass it on in hopes it will help someone else.


One thing I learned that seems counter-intuitive is -- don't try to shield your children from reality. If Mom's been laid off and Dad's sick and tonight's the last dinner you have groceries for -- they're going to find out. My parents were open with us children about the state of our finances, which were usually low -- and we all pulled together. I wasn't as honest with my son, and he still holds a lot of built-up resentmemt over it. I've seen a family with a ten-year old son eating beans around a campfire and joking about the state of their clothing.

It can be an immense relief to your children when you acknowledge a reality. If you blow up because you are tired and hungry and worried -- or you're bipolar and your brain chemistry is bucking you -- apologize honestly.

Identify what's important to you and hold on to it. Despair is the one great sin -- and the one great lie. Life is never going to work out exactly as you envisioned it -- but that doesn't mean you should give up all vision. What are the most important parts of your vision? Focus on those.

My parents' finances were usually strained. My mother decided that whatever else happened, we would eat well and have good shoes -- because those were essential to health and development -- and get a good education, which she insured by reading to us and talking with us herself. Whatever the other imperfections of my life, my feet and my bones are sound, and my education is wide-ranging, if a bit idiosyncratic.

Take some time to sit down and identify what your real goals are. Did you want to own your own house? What did you want it for? You know you've spotted your real goal when there is no "what for," when you've found something you want for itself. When you find that, you may find other ways to it than the ones you expected. If what you really want is something that your family can build together -- you may end up creating a new rockery at the park.

What are your ideals? We shy away from talking about ideals in this culture, or from "programming" our children into a particular religion. But you are going to communicate your ideals to your children whatever you do -- you might as well know for yourself what you're communicating. And you can tell someone else what you believe without forcing them to believe it too. Discussing someone else's beliefs with them can often clarify my own. This can be true for children, too. A core of values and ideals, of something strong enough to have faith in, is an essential survival tool. Share it with your children.

Humor is another great survival tool. Children can find humor in odd things indeed, sometimes very black humor. Don't flinch.

It's the end of the day, everyone is down for the night, and you're lying awake. Everyone's sleeping on the floor because the furniture was repossessed. The air is cold and damp because the gas has been turned off. Next month the bank takes the house. Joanie Jr. is whimpering because her teeth hurt, and you haven't found a dentist you can afford. Kevin is completely silent; the two of you fought just before bedtime over which blankets were his, and you called him a stupid little boy. Your spouse is pretending to be asleep, just like you are, because you don't know what to say to each other. You don't like life much, and you like you less.

Anything I can say will be Monday Morning Quarterbacking. You're the one on the floor. But this is what works for me when life sucks and I'm sucking real hard.

"Yup, I blew it. What can I fix? Do it. What can't I fix? Let it go. Everything past is gone. Tomorrow starts all over new. Good night, go to sleep."

Maybe you need to get up and talk to Kevin before you two can go to sleep. Say something to your spouse, even if it's not perfect. Then get to sleep.

Tomorrow starts all over new.

© 18th August 2001 by Anitra L. Freeman


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Last updated December 8, 2002