The “Never-Good-Enough” Parent

Q: We are the parents of seven, bli ayin hara, “successful” married children. Each one has maalos, and they are appreciated by people around them — at work and in their neighborhoods. But looking back, I see how my husband and I could have done things differently. Certain children would have been better off if they were pushed into things; that would have helped them more, in the long run. Others, I wish we didn’t encourage to go the way they did. I think I yelled too much, and my husband was not around enough. Even when I realized that there must be a better way to respond, I couldn’t stop in my tracks to figure out what that was. When I begin to think this way, I can really become broken. Any thoughts?

A: The fact that your children are successful in their lives is not an accidental outcome. I am sure that you put much effort into your day-to-day interactions with them.

In our generation, the ability to make an accurate self-accounting is a very challenging proposition. People are apt to fall into depression when focusing on their shortcomings, and tend to overlook their many worthwhile capabilities. “Beating yourself up” is a common expression which describes how individuals are often very hard on themselves. People generally do not appreciate the good they possess, either due to false humility or an over-scrupulous self-analysis. They can easily recount the mistakes they amassed on a given day, but cannot recall the small contributions they gave the world around them.

One of the great Chassidic Masters of yesteryear taught that a person needs to possess two “pockets.” One contains the idea that “bishvili nivra ha’olam —The world was created for me.” In the other “pocket” is the idea that “anochi afar va’eifer — I am but dust and ashes.” One needs to envision the power of any given moment — as the world was created for the individual alone — and yet see that one is still like a speck in the ocean in relation to this world and to lifetimes that have passed.

If one has truly thought about one’s parenting abilities and ways to improve them, and worked on one’s middos, and davened for siyatta diShmaya, there is no need for self-flagellation. If such feelings do occur, they are most likely the work of the ever-ready evil inclination, who finds immense gratification when humans fall into depression. People are generally not motivated to improve when they are depressed and feeling sorry for themselves. If anything, timtum halev (literally, “a stuffing up of the heart”) is often caused by such self-destructive thought, as discussed by Harav Dessler and many other baalei machshavah.

Parents often look back at parenting mistakes with guilt and discomfort and can feel quite discouraged. However, human beings only make decisions with the limited information that is momentarily placed before them, and are judged according to these factors. “If we only knew…” are words that may resonate unceasingly in our minds. However, if Hashem wanted us to know certain information, this information would have been revealed to us.

We are judged by our actions, not by all the unanticipated ripple effects that may result from them. When one is motivated l’shem Shamayim (involving daas Torah when necessary) and makes use of the information that is accessible, one does not carry culpability, even if the outcome proves to be negative.

Thus, the “never-good-enough” parent only gives up on his or her task more easily when challenged, feeling as s/he does that “anyway, it will never really be good enough…” A parent’s true humility reflects the realization that we always have more to give, and we are not yet fully utilizing our potential. It is this idea that can inspire us to do more, as we realize that we indeed possess the potential to meet this and all challenges. If Hashem gives us challenges “l’fikocho” — each challenge is given to one who can manage it — then this, too, is within our reach.