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The Difference Between a Good Parent and a Bad Parent

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

Parenting is hard. Very hard. We spend a considerable amount of time convincing ourselves not to do something stupid. Most of us are making shit up as we go. Either that or we look brilliant because we literally just Googled this new fun bullshit our kids have started doing.

On its best day, we know there is nothing better for our lives than our children. We are made better people by raising our children. Our souls overfloweth and we know, without a doubt, we are living our best lives with our kids.

At its worst, we are emotional, vulnerable, broken human beings functioning at the very basest levels of survival.

When my eldest daughter was born, I was exhausted, confused, and scared. Two months in I called my mom in tears. Through sobs and chokes, I told my mom I was clearly a terrible mom because I didn’t love my daughter. Even worse, I was having terrible thoughts.

I didn’t have warm fuzzies. I didn’t smile at the sight of my infant daughter. I was tired and getting resentful that I couldn’t figure her out. I had no overwhelming urge to cuddle or snuggle her. Instead, I had an overwhelming urge to shush my kid for one hot minute. I was fast approaching “any means necessary” territory.

I knew shaking a baby was an absolute no-no. But, a parent for not even 60 days and, for a split-second, it had occurred to me to shake this caterwauling flesh bag. Then she’d have a reason to scream this much. I immediately dismissed it. It was just an instant, but there it was. I’d officially considered, even for a fraction of a moment, hurting my child. Hence, the breakdown.

I was horrified. I dumped all of this on my mom in one grand, watery mess over the phone. She took it all in stride.

“You love your daughter." she said calmly. “You love your daughter because you are so upset at the thought that you don’t. If you didn’t, you would not have called me. You wouldn’t be worrying about it. Every parent has thoughts that scare them. The fact that you are so upset at the thought is a good sign. It’s a great sign. You thought it and immediately decided you could never do that. You just proved you do love your daughter.”

Fast forward 12 years later, and I’ve since identified all that frustration and fear was due, in part, to undiagnosed postpartum depression. The brief millisecond I spent thinking about shaking my baby was my mind attempting to reconcile the stress, imagining the worst possible thing and then relaxing in the immediate rejection of the idea. It was an intrusive thought.

Every parent, whether they are willing to admit it or not, has entertained the briefest flash of doing something awful to their children. Likely more than once. Shaking a crying baby or “giving them a reason to cry,” these are called intrusive thoughts.

Hannah Reese wrote this about intrusive thoughts for Psychology Today.

While doing, or wanting to do, any of these things is not normal, having intrusive thoughts like these is normal. Sometimes thoughts like these come to us precisely because we do not want to act in this way; they are simply the most inappropriate thing your mind can imagine.

Over the years, my mom’s little pep talk evolved into a mantra I’ve shared with a good number of parents. The difference between a good parent and a bad parent is not the thought of harming your child. It’s the decision not to do so.

Very new parents and childfree/childless folks are immediately horrified at this concept. You’re never supposed to harm a child or even think it! The horror of it! How could you? However, I’ve never floated this thought past a parent with a child older than a year without receiving knowing nods and agreements in return.

I’ll say it again. Parenting is hard. It’s got its good days, great days even. I’m beginning to wonder if those goods and greats will continue to outnumber the bad days as my eldest finds her fresh, new attitude. But it has its bad days and parents are human.

In these past 12 years, I’ve thought about pinching, biting, or hitting her back; petty reactions to actions she didn’t know had hurt me. I’ve thought about intentionally hurting her or breaking some item of hers just to upset her. I love my daughter and have not nor would not act on these thoughts, but they’ve wandered in for the briefest moments throughout my parenting career.

This doesn’t mean I’m a terrible parent. It means I’m normal. It means you are normal for enduring and then ignoring similar thoughts. Parents are people, fallible, and emotional. Intrusive thoughts happen to everyone.* What’s important is that those terrible feeling thoughts roll in and then roll right back out. We are good parents because we immediately recognized we would never actually do those things to our children.

*If you find that these thoughts are beginning to influence your decisions or occur with such frequency you have to employ techniques to move past the intrusive thought; you may have a more serious mental health issue. Please reach out to a counselor or psychologist to discuss these thoughts!



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