Even armed with a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, I remember the frightening first moments after bringing my newborn daughter home from the hospital. I wasn’t sure what to do – and not at all confident that I was capable of being the parent she needed me to be. Every little decision about feeding and caring for this helpless human seemed momentous and fraught with anxiety. What if I don’t make it a full year of breastfeeding? Should I turn off the TV whenever she is in the room to avoid passive screen exposure? Is it OK for her to enter full-time day care at five months?
Popular press accounts of parenting and child development research were not particularly helpful, either. Even though as a scientist I knew better, the way the research was translated for the public lacked nuance and easily penetrated my vulnerable state of mind. I fretted that my daughter’s formula consumption would result in lower IQ. I worried that if I was too tired to read to her one evening before bed, she would never learn to read. And, since she’s started elementary school, I have slipped numerous times and called her “smart” instead of more appropriately praising her effort, as so many articles advise.
My personal experiences as a parent are in part why I study the experiences of other parents. In my New Parents Project, an ongoing longitudinal study of nearly 200 dual-earner couples who welcomed their first children in 2008-2009, I have tried to measure this “parenting perfectionism” – that is, holding oneself to impossibly high standards for parenting, and, perhaps even more important, believing that others hold you to impossibly high standards for parenting.