Before I had kids, I used phrases like "My child will never," "I will always," and the dreaded "I believe." I had clear and consistent expectations to which I would hold myself and my children: the definition of an Authoritarian parent. Ultimately, my plans lasted about as long as my attempt at cloth diapering and making organic baby food. I quickly realized that my expectations were lofty and unrealistic, and living up to them was a waste of valuable energy better spent holding down my toddler so I could put on his shoes. I used to feel guilty about compromising my beliefs, but what looked like parenting failures were actually a form of flexibility, an important factor in raising happy children.
Before I had kids I was certain my children were never going to watch television. I was disgusted by the prevalence of television and movie tie-in products marketed to children under 3. There were Lightning McQueen underpants, stickers and even Cars-themed television sets. I refused to be indoctrinated into the billion-dollar industry of scamming children and guilting parents into buying inferior products simply because they're branded with Lightning McQueen's face. Girls weren't safe from the marketing deluge either. There were princess dolls, princess books, princess cutlery and even princess toilet seats.
What I failed to appreciate at the time was how useful television is when you need to cook dinner and your toddler is pulling on the leg of your baggy sweatpants so hard you have to hold the waistband so they don't fall, the baby is crying in the high chair and the dogs are barking at imaginary squirrels in the back yard. With a house full of kids, every day is a series of desperate times, some more desperate than others — but always calling for desperate measures. Disney is aware that they have something I can't live without, and like a drug dealer they offer me precious, decadent and sanity-sparing diversions at extortionate cost. I'll complain and whine about the price, but in the end I'll swallow my pride and turn on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse because it means I can have 45 minutes of calm in my otherwise manic life.
My children were always going to sleep in their own beds. That is, until my second child was born. He was what all the baby books I consulted called "a grazer." He liked to eat every hour, 24 hours a day, or he'd howl like a cat in heat. I would march toward his door, a dozen times a night, like I was marching to my death. My feet dragged and after three months I hit a metaphorical wall as well as the usual physical ones. Out of desperation, I let him sleep next to me one night. I was terrified to fall asleep and lay quietly judging my parenting failures, but eventually the exhaustion won and I passed out. The next morning, when I realized only my pride had suffocated and that he and I slept longer than ever before, I amended my rules on co-sleeping faster than milk through his digestive tract.
Before I had kids, I believed that parents should never yell at children. Discipline should be issued calmly, with a firm voice, but never shouted. However, sometimes I can't focus solely on my zen parenting skills. Sometimes I'm cooking dinner, writing, talking to another adult or cleaning up the mystery liquid on the floor in the bathroom. I wish I had the patience to stop whatever I was doing and connect with my children with love and respect every time they misbehaved. I wish. But in reality, there are times when I shout and times when I threaten everyone in the house, including the dogs. "The next person who speaks above a whisper is going outside. In the snow!" So far, only the dogs have called my bluff.
My parenting doesn't always look like I imagined, but I've learned that parenting doesn't deal in ideals, and even if it could, it probably shouldn't. Current research suggests that there are four main types of parenting styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive and Neglectful. Authoritarian parenting is characterized by strict rules adhering to an external judgment of what is the "correct" way to behave, such as social values, religious values, family traditions or preconceived notions about what makes the perfect parent. Authoritative parents set boundaries, but remain flexible and parent on a case-by-case and child-specific basis. Most experts now believe that the acceptance fostered by Authoritative parents produces the most socially and mentally well-adjusted children.
Basically, the ability to evolve along with the child, bending rules and breaking them when necessary, instills in children a sense of safety and unconditional love. What I thought of as failure to stick to my well-intentioned values was actually a beneficial adaptation for me and my children. It is not only important to maintain flexibility when it comes to the pressures we place on our children, but also on ourselves as parents.
Even the best parents have moments of weakness. We all have opinions and beliefs — some of us even live by them when convenient — but mostly, we are just getting by. We cut corners, dodge meltdowns and order takeout for the third night this week. We sometimes lock the bathroom door just because we need a break, and that's okay. Our children aren't perfect and neither are we, but we love them. That love is perfect, absolute and undeniable.
Mary Widdicks is mom to two boys and a baby girl and blogs at OutmannedMommy.com. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.