Two Sides of Parenting: From the Olympics to Aurora

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Advertisements during the Olympics tell us that parenting is the hardest job but also the best job. However, while we’ve been seeing the positive face of parenting during the Games, the shootings in Aurora remind us of parenting nightmares we all hope to avoid.

While watching the Olympics the other night, I saw a Procter & Gamble commercial called “Thank You.” Prior to seeing the commercial, I didn’t know anything about their advertising campaign, but apparently they call themselves “The proud sponsor of moms.” Running up to the Olympics, they’ve been showing their “Raising an Olympian” series featuring the mothers of everyone from Ryan Lochte (swimming) to Kerri Walsh-Jennings (sand volleyball).

Being sentimental, I have to admit that the commercials are moving, as they show all the hard work put in by the families, specifically the mothers, of Olympic athletes. Leaving the sexist stereotypes aside (are fathers not involved?), they do depict some of the challenges faced by the parents and the joy they must feel when their children succeed beyond their wildest dreams. P & G’s tagline, “The hardest job in the world, is the best job in the world” is lovely and mirrors what I always tell my patients. My comment is, “The Army got it wrong because parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love.”

Thus, the Olympics have shown us the upside of parenting: the dreams and the joys. However, there is another side that hasn’t been much on display. These are the things that we rarely talk about, partially because they are too painful to discuss and partially because to give them voice might make them real. These are the nightmares that each of us confronts as parents. And while they haven’t been talked about explicitly, we’ve seen them happen pretty recently with the shooting in Aurora.

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I think the biggest nightmare for any parent is that our child will die before we do. In an orderly and just world, parents go before their children. It is the way it is supposed to be and it spares us the indescribable pain of losing a child. While all losses can be terrible, nothing can make up for or replace your child. Not only do you have to bear their absence, but there is also the sense of promise left unfulfilled and perhaps even the question of who will take care of you when you cannot. So, in thinking about all of this, my heart goes out to the 12 sets of parents who lost children that day in Aurora.

For me, the next biggest nightmare is that I will die while my child is still young. Although I completely trust that my husband and family can provide the love, security and support necessary to raise my son well, I cannot help but believe that there are certain things that I alone can offer him. Plus, losing a parent is very hard on a young child and I do not want my son to have to suffer through that challenge. Consequently, reading about the death of single mother Rebecca Wingo hit me pretty hard. Her two daughters should not have to bear the loss of their mother. Gordon Cowden’s two teenagers not only lost their father in the shooting but saw it happen. I cannot imagine their grief.

While many parents can talk about the first two nightmares, there is another one that goes mostly unmentioned because it carries shades of guilt, blame and helplessness. Parents always have expectations and dreams for their children. These are different for everyone, but they generally include the belief that our children will contribute in some way and the hope that they will succeed (however we define that word). Consequently, the parenting nightmare is that our child will do neither. And when a child or young adult does something grievously wrong, like killing 12 people and wounding 58, the parents often share the blame. Thus, I feel for the parents of James Holmes, for — although it was their son who did the crime — they also will pay heavily for it.

I sincerely believe that most parents do the best they can for their children with the resources they have available at the time. However, it isn’t always enough and that isn’t always the parents’ fault. No one lives in a vacuum and parents must contend with societal influences as well as genetics. What do you do when your child becomes seriously mentally ill? How do you reconcile the person he used to be with who he is now and what he has done? I do not envy the parents of James Holmes the journey they must take in answering those questions because it has to be a nightmare of epic proportions and there will be no “Thank You” at the end of it.

It is tempting to think of children as mere extensions of parents. It is nice to believe that Olympic athletes have the talent, drive and perseverance to succeed because of their parents’ dedication and sacrifice. Similarly, it is comforting to think that people who commit heinous crimes do so because of some flaw in their upbringing, that somehow their parents did something wrong. If both of those assumptions are true, then we can rest easy because they are within our control. However, it is never as simple as all that.

Our children do things that we never encouraged, modeled or desired because they are their own people shaped by many different influences. Consequently, some Olympians succeed despite their parents just as some people do horrible things even though they had loving and thoughtful parents. Commercials and the media tell us to think one way or another but only the people involved know for certain. Maybe Ryan Lochte’s mother is fabulous and James Holmes’ parents are horrible but, as a mere spectator, I cannot know the truth. All I can do is have compassion for the challenges that all parents face, hope that my child will have the life I wish for him (one of happiness and health) and pray that the only time I ever have to confront those parenting nightmares is when I’m asleep.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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