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My family and I were traveling in Guatemala a few years ago. We visited a man who had given his life to serving a poor congregation. We sat at the kitchen table with him, a man who had been bent into humility by the burdens of pastoring in a struggling nation while raising four children. Still in the muddy trenches of parenthood with our five sons and one daughter, we confessed to him our feelings of inadequacy.

"Your children are grown. What have you learned looking back on your years of child-raising? Do you have any advice for us?" We looked at him, needy, expectant.

He would have none of it. "I'm not one to talk to. I don't exactly have a perfect record." One of his children was immersed in an addiction, he told us, visibly sad. Another had a failed marriage.

He was silent for a moment, nodding slowly, and then continued. "I never lived up to my mother's expectations either. I've been reading her journal lately, and I see how she prayed for me, what she prayed. And I've never lived up to what she hoped for me," he said, his voice a near-whisper. "I think she considered me a failure."

In my mother-mind, I supplied the last words: "And considered herself a failure as a parent." This conversation shook me profoundly, touching one of my deepest concerns.

Prevailing Parental Panic

I'm hardly alone in my fixation. More than any other generation, today's parents are worried sick that they will mess up their children's lives. A massive 2006 study revealed that parents post significantly higher rates of depression than adults without children. Judith Warner's 2005 book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety, captured the national obsession with successful parenting and its overwrought attempts to secure happiness and success ...

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The Myth of the Perfect Parent
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In the Magazine

January 2010

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