Guest Blog Post: Reflecting On Your Idealized Child by Rita Eichenstein, Ph.D., author, Not What I Expected
Can you recall when you first started thinking about having a child?
• What—or rather, who—came to mind when you imagined what your child would be like? What did you imagine he or she would look like?
• What influences contributed to your image of the child you would one day parent? What did you think his or her personality would reflect?
• What attributes, strengths, and proclivities did you envision your child would have?
• How did you imagine your child would be similar or different from you? From your spouse or partner?
• How did you assume you would feel toward your ideal child?
• What feelings would he or she bring out in you?
As you think about these questions, notice feelings that come up for you. It might be difficult to acknowledge that you had expectations of what your child would be like, expectations that differ starkly from how your child actually is. You might be battling feelings of guilt or remorse for consciously bringing up this topic. I realize that it is a loaded subject, the idea of imagining a child who is different from the child you actually have. If this is difficult, don’t force the issue, but just be aware that there are some deep feelings there.
When you have a fairly clear picture in your mind of your idealized child, take some time to acknowledge her or his presence in your thoughts. This imaginary child is who you hoped for and, to some extent, who you expected. Recognize that you conjured this image from various influences in your own life. Perhaps your fantasy child was an unreal projection of parts of yourself that you feel need completing or enhancing. Maybe your parents’ expectations helped shape the image of your ideal child. Our culture’s emphasis on success and perfection might have had an impact. By closely observing that image, you will be able to distinguish between your imaginary child and your real daughter or son. The ultimate objective, which we will work on throughout the book, is to let go of the idealized image of who your child was supposed to be. Shedding your conscious or unconscious expectations will free you to be more open to the variety in human behavior, recognizing that none of us is ideal, that no human being is without human imperfections.
It is not the imperfections that create difficulties, it is our expectations. Expectations make it so much harder for us to fully embrace both our children and ourselves. Ora, a deeply religious woman, was the mother of Natalie, a severely ill toddler born with an incurable terminal disease. Ora was a trained hospice care worker, which gave her a different perspective than that of most parents. She wisely observed, “Imagine if infants were born ready to use the potty and diapering wasn’t in the norm of our expectations. If you gave birth to a baby who needed diapers, it would be considered a tragedy. The fact that you would have to change diapers for the first two years of life would be seen as a devastating concept. But every parent is able to change their babies’ diapers. Why? Because it is the natural state of affairs.”
Ora attributed her calm acceptance of her daughter’s illness to her ability to let go of expectations and her own ego. She’s right: the two are connected. When your child has a huge temper tantrum over getting his hands dirty or cannot enjoy a birthday party because she can’t handle the sensory overload, does your ego take a bashing? Notice where this is coming from. Has your ideal image of your child —and of yourself as a parent—been battered? Do you leave upset and embarrassed? And does that embarrassment lead to anger at home, to crying or feelings of deep disappointment later that night, as you relive what your friends must be thinking about you, or worry about how your child is not going to be able to make any friends? If so, being aware is the first step to changing your expectations and accepting the real world.
Rita Eichenstein, PhD, is a noted psychologist and pediatric neuropsychologist, renowned in the field of child development, and author of the popular blog Positively Atypical! by Dr. Rita Eichenstein, her life’s work has been to reach out, support, and counsel atypical children and their parents. She maintains a private practice in Los Angeles and specializes in learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, autism spectrum, twice exceptional students, and giftedness in children, teens, college students, and graduate students. Valued for her clinical expertise, Dr. Eichenstein speaks at schools, educational and business conferences, and nonprofit organizations. She has been quoted in NYMetro, Parents, Prevention.com, Scholastic.com, SheKnows.com, and Time Magazine, and is a frequent guest on national, local, and syndicated radio programs across the country.
**Excerpted from Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children by Rita Eichestein, Ph.D. A Perigee Book, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.