The biology of releasing parental guilt

St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald



Biology is the bomb. I never expected to be saying that many decades after leaving school with a scraped pass for the subject, which I hated only marginally less than maths.

But as a writer and parent – indeed, simply as a woman living in a chaotic modern world – I know there’s something to be said for a scientific discipline that puts labels on the way I think and act since becoming a mom.

Perhaps we’re buckling under too many labels, it’s true. Trying too hard to find reasons for our general discontent, our soaring anxiety, our sense that no matter how cushy today is, with its creature comforts, yesteryear seemed so much simpler, better … slower.

But biology doesn’t lie and it’s not surprising that a recent study about the pressures of parenting in the 21st century has gone virtually viral on the internet.

Finally, we have a diagnosis and at last, perhaps we can lose the guilt, which is crippling not only us, but our kids.
Writer and parenting expert Jessica Lahey tells of her strange anxiety attack recently during a parent-teacher evening.

Before leaving home, she was quite happy with her life, thanks very much. Her sons were fine – one completing homework and the other practising guitar when she left.

But, as happens when we step outside our front door, she began comparing notes without even realising it: she noted that dozens of kids from her children’s school seemed to be doing so much more than hers were; their parents were rushing around, headless chickens, being at regional ski practice now and just making soccer finals later; fitting clothes for national dance comps and grabbing supper on the way to extra science classes.

For them, parenting was a career – and their kids the end-of-year bonus. For a normal, down-to-earth, good enough mom, Lahey became instantly, desperately convinced that she was not only failing – but that her kids were somehow in danger.

Have you ever felt that no matter how hard you try – or how hard you want your kids to try – it’s never quite enough?

That when you were young, things weren’t as complex or competitive as they are now? Almost as though we’re suddenly faced with global disaster, scarce resources and a creeping, sinister “survival of the fittest” mentality?

Being either a parent or child in the 21st century isn’t for sissies. We middle classes may have the security of solid homes, good education and on-tap sanitation, but for some reason, it’s still a jungle out there.

While millions are just getting by with communal taps and government hand-outs, those with enough money and a generally decent lifestyle seem to be more discontent and distressed than ever.

Lahey actually felt sick to her stomach when she silently compared other kids’ achievements to those of her kids. She had to leave the room for some air.

Why? It’s biology, says psychology professor Wendy Grolnick – and the syndrome knocking her for a six is called “pressured parents phenomenon”.

“We are hard-wired for this anxiety response,” Lahey said of Grolnick’s research.

Many moons ago, as hunter-gatherers, our kids’ survival depended on their ability to lead the pack, fight for scant food resources and find the closest spot to the fire during winter. Nothing’s changed – as descendants of this “eat or be eaten” response, we instinctively want our kids to not only compete, but to win.

The physical symptoms may go almost unnoticed, but they are cold hands, nausea and light-headedness. I recall that during my daughter’s first athletics race a few years ago – and it was horrible.

But the great thing about biology is that change is absolute. Everything evolves – if only we’d go with the evolutionary flow. We don’t need to be like this, because for every top student, there’s an ace creative who might turn out beautiful tables rather than lead a Fortune 500 company one day.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t only the fastest or most aggressive of our ancestors who lived to fight another day amid lions and enemy tribes. Perhaps your bloodline was the one which learnt to run the hell away and camouflage itself in mud and leaves, rather than race ahead with a spear and scowling face.
And I’m okay with that.

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