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Parenting through Doubt

Confidence as a parent often goes through a series of stages.

Many of us start off naïvely thinking “how hard can this be?” We read the baby books, maybe take some parenting classes, and come to the conclusion that we are ready and capable.

Not long after a newborn arrives (maybe in the middle of the night, when the baby will not calm down, despite having just been fed and changed) we start to doubt our competence. Thoughts vacillate between “Am I ever going to get this right?” and “Is there even a right way to do this?” Then there are moments of clarity and we start to think “maybe, possibly, I am getting the hang of this parenting thing.” And just as we feel like we are hitting our stride, a child has an embarrassingly loud, public meltdown. Or we say something wrong or we just hit a brick wall and don’t know what to do. And then it’s back to “I’m never going to do this right.”

A central principle of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that our thoughts (about ourselves, others, and the world) impact how we feel and what we do. For new parents, it is helpful to identify common patterns of thinking that lead to increased doubt and anxiety. Doing this allows us to eventually reframe these beliefs to reflect a more realistic and rational view on parenting.

One common pitfall is a self-expectation of being the perfect mother or father who is wholly selfless, all knowing, and makes no missteps. This pressure leads to an unyielding state of stress, as we try to meet this impossible standard, and then feel guilty when we inevitably fail to do so. A helpful concept to consider is the theory of the “good enough mother,” introduced by pediatrician, D.W. Winnicott. This principle suggests that it is a natural and healthy part of development for a parent to gradually become slower to respond to a child's needs, while still remaining empathetic and attuned. This gradual frustration allows the child to develop distress tolerance and better interact with their environment. In other words, perfection is not the goal! The small mistakes we make as parents, and even more so the way we choose to address and apologize for those mistakes, are actually helpful for our children’s growth.

Another thinking trap that many fall into is the land of the should and shouldn’t, especially with regards to our own emotions. If you’re a parent reading this, the following thoughts will likely resonate: “I should be able to handle meal time without feeling frustrated when my baby throws his food on the floor,” “I shouldn’t feel sad or hurt when my toddler insists only my partner can put on her shoes,” or “I should be able to handle everything better.” Should statements often lead to blame and increased feelings of anger and frustration.

Instead, we want to try to validate our experiences and our emotions. Parenting is draining! Let’s let go of judging ourselves for having an emotional response in a stressful situation and instead acknowledge which parts of our reactions fit with the facts of the situation. (It makes sense to feel frustrated when food that we spent time preparing ends up on the floor.) Doing so allows us to then gently challenge the assumptions that are increasing our negative emotions. (Our baby is not purposefully rejecting us and everything we stand for when he chucks his oatmeal.)

As children grow, new parenting challenges arise. The cycles of confidence and doubt continue. We all have days that are filled with questioning and thoughts of how we could be better. This sense of doubt can be useful, insofar as it propels us to try harder and keep improving ourselves. But if the doubt worsens our mood or gets us stuck on minutiae while ignoring the big picture, it has the opposite impact of making us less effective parents. When that happens, we can acknowledge that it is okay to make mistakes and to feel frustrated or sad at times. This actually has the positive side effect of modeling for our children healthy emotion regulation. We want our kids to know that perfection is not the goal and emotions are safe and healthy.

If you are a parent or soon-to-be parent, start to become aware of how your beliefs about yourself, your child, and parenthood are affecting your emotions and actions. When possible, challenge faulty assumptions that aren’t serving you or your family. And throughout your parenting journey, remind yourself that “good enough” is good enough. Sometimes it’s even better.

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