By: Vanessa Penberg, Supervisor of Children's Services
One of the most universal feelings that parents experience is regret over decisions that they believe caused their child to get hurt and experience pain in some way - even when it is entirely outside of their control to prevent it.
Many parents will dissect all of the tiny choices that led to a child's accident, illness or emotional distress and blame themselves for not having had the foresight to do things differently. It is entirely human to want to protect your child from pain, wishing that you could take their place when they are suffering.
It is equally human to be comforted by the knowledge that others, even experts in medical fields and child development, make mistakes with their own children and are unable to prevent them from injury and anguish. Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician and Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at NYU, wrote a recent New York Times article, Accidents Happen But Parents Still Beat Themselves Up, discussing her experiences as both a doctor and mother, holding herself up to impossible standards particularly because of her medical expertise.
In the article, Dr. Klass recalls an incident in which her toddler became badly sunburned under her supervision and how that remains one of her most acute moments of failure and regret.
"I understood immediately that this in some sense negated my whole existence, that I had failed as a parent, a pediatrician and a person," recalled Dr. Klass. "I've had plenty of other regrets, but maybe none of them quite so overpowering, so complete and desolate, as that sunburn."
At the time of the accident, she took her son to the pediatrician who was also her former clinical teacher during residency. She rehashed the events that led to the sunburn and chastised herself for being so careless. He treated her son and then made her feel better by sharing a story about his own imperfect parenting and his son's resulting injury. Dr. Klass called him 20 years later, while writing this article, to see if he remembered the sunburn. He recalled sharing the anecdote about his son to normalize the fact that all parents make mistakes and to reinforce the idea that no one is perfect, regardless of their degrees and training.
He reiterated, "Anyone who loves their kids must have this feeling that they betrayed them, they let them down, they feel they didn't do the right thing or they weren't careful enough, and that is so normal."
Parenting babies is often beautiful and exciting, but it can also feel solitary and overwhelming. At Excellence Baby Academy (EBA), we provide weekly group meetings for parents with babies ages zero to three who live in central Brooklyn. During our sessions we cover all aspects of child development and safety, and provide an opportunity for parents to learn from one another and share their experiences, strategies and challenges.
One of the first activities we do with the parents is brainstorm the various roles that parents play on a daily basis, including being a teacher, nurse, detective and cheerleader. Parents juggle these roles and responsibilities - and more - largely without any formal training for most of them. They put pressure on themselves to be perfect at the one thing for which you cannot really study or train.
As Dr. Klass writes, "There is no job in our lives that is as hard as this one; there is no job we care about as much. And try as we may, there is (you know this) no hope of controlling all the outcomes."
Thankfully, there are many resources in Brooklyn that can help parents prepare and feel more equipped to raise their children as safely and healthily as possible.
Healthy Start Brooklyn offers free safe sleep and breastfeeding workshops, childbirth education and newborn care classes, infant safety/CPR training, parenting education, home visiting and support programs such as EBA. The parenting education curriculum at EBA covers health and nutrition for the entire family, overall social-emotional wellness and child safety, among many others essential topics. Most importantly at EBA, parents get input, support and solidarity from one another from which they derive strength - and which we hope helps them not be so hard on themselves.
One of the pediatricians, who attends our group meetings to answer parents' questions about their babies' health and development, often speaks about her personal experiences as a doctor and mother, and the mistakes that she had made parenting her young children. As Dr. Klass experienced, having accidents and regrets normalized, especially by an expert, goes a long way towards reassuring parents and relieving some of their guilt. These types of conversations are so essential, because parents are able to learn strategies and feel empowered by increasing their knowledge while having an opportunity to see that all parents, even those whose are "experts," struggle with the same insecurities and concerns.
And sometimes it just really helps to have someone acknowledge that and say it out loud.