Parenting Image vs. Reality

Forming Parenting Images

I can’t believe I wound up with a bright-red-headed daughter!

I always thought my children would be quiet bookworms like I was; instead, they are all boisterous sports enthusiasts.

It is such a total shock to me that I am having to take my son to early intervention programs because of developmental delays. I always expected that everything would be “normal” with my children.


At every stage of parenting, parents have images of what they think the upcoming phase will be like. Even during pregnancy, parents have images of how they envision their newborn, what they think the experience of new parenthood will be, how they will feel about and react to their infant.

This forming of pictures in their minds of what will be continues throughout their parenting journey – what kind of students their children will be, what issues they will confront, what interests they will have, what their temperaments will be, whether they will go to college and if so, what college they will go to, etc.

When Images Match Reality

Often that image does in fact match the reality of actual life. And occasionally, the reality is even better than the expectations the parents had. When this happens, parents feel confident, affirmed, comfortable, at ease, and prepared to handle what comes their way. There is a goodness of fit between the child, the situation, and the parents’ images.

For example, a father may have wanted a child who is very friendly and polite, and winds up with a social butterfly, who is adept at engaging people of all ages in conversation. In this case, reality exceeds the hopes for the kind of child he has and the life he will have with that child.


When Images Stray from Reality

Other times, however, the image a parent has differs from what occurs. Parents then have to grapple with situations that they did not expect and are not prepared for. When this happens, there is a disconnect between their image of what life would be like with their child and what they actually confront on a daily basis.

They can feel unsure, stressed, confused and not sure how to manage their children and their lives. There is often a feeling of sadness as they realize that the dreams they had for their children will not come to be.

For example, a mother may have hoped for a child that would follow in her family’s footsteps by excelling in athletics, but her child lacks coordination and interest in sports.

In addition, there are tragic situations which could not have been anticipated, in which children have serious physical disabilities, medical conditions, developmental delays, or emotional problems that turn parents’ lives upside-down and throw them into a maze of stress, anxiety, and despair.

How can parents cope with these disappointments?

What Can Parents Do?

At the beginning of this road, it can feel impossible to ever be able to move on and create an environment in which:

  • parents can find optimism and hope,
  • their children can thrive,
  • and they can meet the challenges they face.

There is a way for parents to prevail and become resilient and accept the reality.

Taking Time to Mourn

First, parents may need to experience a mourning process in which they allow themselves to feel the sadness of losing the dreams they had and give up the images they had formed. This is a real loss that can leave parents feeling despair, emptiness, anger, resentment, bitterness, and hopelessness. Parents often resist giving up the image and try to deny the realities they face.

Being Realistic

Parents need to reconcile the image they had with what they actually experience. Once they can accept the fact that their idealized image is not to be, they can more easily face the facts that exist.

This stage involves:

  • being realistic about the situation,
  • confronting the difficulties,
  • considering any positives that might come from the circumstances,
  • and finding ways to cope with challenges that arise.

In this stage, parents find sources of support, learn more about the issue, become advocates for their children, possibly get involved in the “system” and identify potential resources.

Reaching Acceptance

True acceptance comes when parents admit their new reality, find the good in what they have, and find comfort in support, knowledge, connections with others, and know that they have ways to cope that will help their children.

Swinging between Stages

These stages do not happen in a linear fashion. Parents may go back and forth between them for a while. Parents may feel sadness, then a bit of hope; find some good, then revert back to resentment; gain new knowledge that moves them along, find some support, and then swing back to feeling discouraged . . .

There is no right time-line, nor is there any right order in which to experience the process. The important thing is to go through all the stages and eventually reconcile the image with the reality. When that happens, parents can find the ways and the strength to cope with the disappointment and do what needs to be done.

One Mother’s Tale

The following is a poignant story written by a mother of a child with autism. It sums up the experience of parents who are faced with the shattering of their images and the successful way they find acceptance:

Welcome to Holland

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?” I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to some horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy a new guidebook. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

The pain of that will never, ever, go away, because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

Written by Emily Perl Kingsley



<all our recommended parenting books

<return to top of page

<additional articles that Focus on Parents

<Library of Articles topic page