|Its an interesting time to be a parent. Thanks in large part to things like birth control, dishwashers, double incomes and laundry machines, we have fewer kids and more time to spend with them (and more money to spend on them) than parents have ever had, historically.
Yet contemporary parents are often isolated and overwhelmed, anxious and worried about the responsibilities of parenting. We have our children by choice in most cases, making each one precious. We believe they are fragile and vulnerable. We feel responsible for whatever happens to them. And we approach childrearing competitively, driven by the same ambitions we bring to the workplace, where we seek perfection, achievement, control and recognition. It may be hip these days to have kids, but raising them is serious business. Isnt it?
In her new book, Breaking the Good Mom Myth: Every Modern Moms Guide To Getting Past Perfection, Regaining Sanity and Raising Great Kids (John Wiley & Sons Canada, 212 pp.), psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer offers parents a lighter, brighter way of approaching childrearing.
"I want to encourage parents. I wanted to make (this book) funny. Humour is a huge part of therapy and mental health."
A mother of two, based in Toronto, Schafer teaches parent education classes, hosts Rogers The Parenting Show, is a popular public speaker and is regularly featured in parenting segments on television and in magazines.
Over time, through her practice, Schafer explains, "I noticed a series of recurring, mistaken ideas parents had, certain universal misconceptions. I like the word "myth" because these are notions that society has adopted as truisms without evaluating their actual truth."
Is a mothers commitment to self-care selfish? Do good mothers always make life fun and entertaining, remain in control, be all-caring and all-protecting? Schafers book humorously debunks these and other myths.
Behind all the humour is a sound practice set firmly in theory. Schafers work is based on the teachings of the famous Austrian physician and psychiatrist, Alfred Adler (1870-1937), and his principles of individual psychology.
"Weve come to embrace democracy throughout the world and in our relationships," says Schafer. "Adler was concerned with the idea of social equality. We dont have dominion over other people, so how do we get along? What do we need to do to raise co-operative kids?"
After easing us into the book with a gentle pep talk on self-care, Schafer hits us with the critical tenets of Adlerian theory in chapter two, "Myth: My Children are a Reflection of Me." She introduces, in simple terms, Adlers "slow" model of democratic parenting, explaining the important differences between this and the "fast-fix," autocratic approach of "Father (or mother) knows best."
For parents to incorporate the tenets of social equality in their parenting, they must also understand the difference between "vertical striving" ("Its all about me") versus "horizontal striving" ("Its all about the job or task"). These are powerful concepts, but Schafer doesnt overwhelm us with the usual psychobabble found in clinical psychology texts.
"Understanding this difference between vertical and horizontal striving is the most important concept in the book," Schafer laughs, "but its not sexy language."
Instead, Schafer helps us enjoy this theoretical journey through the use of humour and her particular brand of "motivational speaker" diction. She incorporates a few (but not too many) comparison charts, peppers the text with thought-provoking sayings, and uses upbeat headings like "Good-Bye Perfection, Hello Mastery!" and "Changes in Family Size: Hey, Where Did All the Kids Go?" More importantly, she includes practical examples of parenting dilemmas and their autocratic versus democratic solutions, provides the how-tos of running a family meeting and lists age-appropriate responsibilities to help kids gain independence and contribute positively to the family.
Why is this book about contemporary parenting aimed just at moms, though? What about dads?
"Well youre right," she says, "You wouldnt have to change much of the text, and it would apply equally well to fathers." But many of todays parenting myths have the highest negative impact on moms, Schafer explains, citing studies done by the Canadian Vanier Institute of the Family which suggest that men, although they are more participatory in family life, still define success by their earnings, while female success is defined by raising good kids.
"In the chapter, Myth: My Marriage Can Wait, Im trying to address the fact that moms push men out of the relationship. Good little girls grow up wanting to be good little moms. This is a female conundrum: looking for external validation," says Schafer.
Schafer is a realist. She knows that moms are struggling to feel good about themselves and theyre not likely to find the external validation theyre looking for out there in our society-at-large. Breaking the Good Mom Myth reminds moms, and parents in general that, primarily, parenting "is about being really genuine and authentic."
We may not have much control over the immediate culture in which were raising our kids. Antiquated, autocratic systems prevail, as Schafer acknowledges in her chapter on education. "Smarter-Faster-Sooner is in vogue and it feels like the bus is leaving whether you climb on board or not."
But as the Vanier Institute of the Family website points out, families are the foundation of any culture. Families can be active agents of personal, social and cultural change.
Can we change the world with good parenting?
"The point I want to drive home is that parenting is a skill that we need to get educated about," she says. "It should be normative. It should be part of every parents experience."
Reading Breaking the Good Mom Myth is as good a place as any to start.