By Kate Bennett, PsyD
Over the past 18 months, I discovered (and continue to discover) just how tough the parenting gig is. Starting with our first “child”, a 100lb rescued Labahoula by the name of Rocky, and continuing onto the birth our first human baby, we faced unique challenges that ultimately led us to failure as parents more than once despite our best intentions.
I am by no means a stranger to failure. It is something that I faced frequently and often throughout my life: From not making travel softball in middle school to showing a high-strung ex-racehorse in high school, various experiences throughout college, and multiple failures in cycling, the idea of failure became less intimidating as I matured with age. The difference between my personal failures and parenting failures is this: Individually, I could work hard and put all my effort into achieving a goal knowing that if I did not achieve the success I hoped for, I was the only one impacted. Furthermore, I had the ability to grow/learn/work harder or re-evaluate my goal altogether. Inevitably, I achieved a lot of success along my bumpy road of failure because I became more determined, worked harder, and developed more resilience. However, as a parent, no matter how badly I wanted to achieve some goals or the amount I idealized them as being the best option for my babies, I could not (and cannot) force my child (fur-baby or human) to get on board with some of my individual desires.
Case and point: Despite my knack for goal setting and high level of persistence, both of my babies reminded me that failure is inevitable as a parent.
Failure #1: As my husband and I prepared to bring home our first dog, I dreamed of a companion that could run free next to us while we hiked and rode mountain bikes. Upon my insistence for a big, black lab (mind you that this was my husband’s first experience of having a dog and I essentially adopted a small horse), we brought home our sweet, yet unruly and overly energetic, furball. He was terrible on the leash. Daily walks were more similar to water skiing than walking a family pet. After he discovered that jumping our backyard fence was no problem with his athletic ability and countless (frantic) chases trying to make sure he did not get hit by a car, we signed Rocky (and ourselves) up for obedience training.
Our trainer told us what we already knew: Rocky is very smart and incredibly athletic. He performed well during our sessions and we did our best to continue our work between sessions. However, Rocky struggled look past the rabbits. For some odd reason, our trainer decided we should allow Rocky to chase rabbits on the leash and he quickly discovered that he could out-muscle us during outings. Essentially, every walk became an opportunity for freedom: Running through the open space and jumping our neighbors’ fences to check out their yards. In fact, it was in their yards that he finally surrendered himself and allowed us to catch him. Upon surrendering, he also magically forgot how to jump back over the fence when it was time to come home. My husband did a lot of heavy lifting while I mastered my coaxing skills to get him home. Needless to say, given the fact that we could not control Rocky on the leash, we failed training and more sessions were recommended. We politely declined and decided to figure things out on our own.
Lessons Learned: First, trust my gut. I already know this and frequently ask my clients “What does your gut say?” Reflecting on our primal wiring, it was the gut-response (instinctual awareness) that kept our ancestors out of harm’s way. When our trainer suggested that Rocky be allowed to chase rabbits on the leash, my husband and I both froze. We probably looked like we had just seen a ghost. My husband instantly knew it was a bad idea but I suggested that we trust the professional and try it out. Lesson 2: Trust those you know and make sure the professionals earn your trust. I wish I had listened to my husband sooner. Lesson 3: Adjust your goals upon early signs of failure. Once we slowed down and accepted that Rocky was still adjusting to his new home, family, and surrounding areas, Rocky quickly started progressing with leash etiquette. A year later, Rocky walks calmly on the leash, past rabbits, while I push the stroller. He is not always perfect (as none of us are) but, in general, Rocky’s behavior on the leash is something I am very proud of.
Values-Based Decision Making: Enjoying Rocky as a part of our family is more important than my ideal of a voice-responsive, off-leash dog. Maybe he will get there someday but, for now, we enjoy him most when he is well-behaved on the leash. Rather than impose my desire upon our sweet dog that needs structure to manage his anxiety, I accepted that we are all happier when Rocky stays on the leash and within a fenced-in open space.
Failure 2: Based on some basic preparatory research as we anticipated our daughter’s birth, I quickly discovered what I already knew: Breastfeeding is the healthiest feeding option and it can be difficult to achieve. Wanting the best for our baby, I set a goal to breastfeed, talked to friends about their experiences, and worked with professionals in anticipation of her arrival. Our baby girl finally arrived, six days late and simply precious. Over the course of the next six weeks, I tried and tried to get her to take to breastfeeding. We saw a doctor and the doctor ran tests. Our baby girl cried for six hours a day. The doctor normalized her crying and encouraged us to continue what we were doing. After several weeks of struggle, I finally looked at my doctor and said that I did not think my daughter was good at nursing. And it was true: As a newborn, my baby took to my philosophy of “smarter not harder.” She preferred bottle feeding and once we made the transition, she stopped crying. We were all happier despite not having the gold standard of infant feeding options.
Lessons Learned: First and foremost, make values-based decisions. While I wanted to nurse my baby for the numerous health benefits, more importantly, I wanted a healthy and happy baby. Lesson 2 (Learned Again): Trust my gut. I knew the amount of crying (read: SCREAMING) was not normal. Something had to be wrong despite the minimization I experienced during appointments. Looking back, I wish I would have been more insistent that something needed to change. Being a sleep-deprived new mom, I wanted to trust the doctors; however, I know that my gut instinct will always be stronger than a professional’s ability to understand and respond to my exact situation.
Values-Based Decision Making: While I idealized the gold-standard of infant feeding, having a healthy, happy baby was more important to me. We were not happy when we tried to make breastfeeding work, my husband dreaded coming home from work and my patience started waning with each new day of crying. The day we quit, we were all significantly happier: We were able to smile and relax as we enjoyed our newborn baby. Ironically, both my husband and I were formula-fed babies and we seem to have turned out just fine.
So, there you have it. We failed obedience training and failed at breastfeeding. Two significant failures as a parent; however, I also learned (and re-learned) important lessons along the way. Ultimately, I know that my babies will not always agree with the standardized ideals. Values will always trump ideals in our family. More than force my desires upon them, my new goal is to thrive as a family by working together and discovering what options best meet our babies' individual needs. And, more importantly, remembering that failure is a part of parenting. Rather than avoid them, I intend to welcome failures as learning opportunities which allow me discover more about my precious babies and their unique needs.