My funny, creative, and very sweet three-year-old has been writhing on the floor in agony for almost 10 minutes. With his eyes scrunched shut, he’s screaming, flailing, rolling from side to side.

“I see you feel disappointed that there are no more hard-boiled eggs to peel,” I say calmly. “It’s hard to feel disappointed. Mommy feels that way sometimes, too. You’ll be okay.”

Did I just say that? An Instagram post flashes in my mind, one of the hundreds of thousands I’ve seen over the three years I’ve been at this parenting thing: telling your kid he’s okay invalidates his feeling that he’s not okay. Shit. What have I done? 

I think of another post that got shared around my parent group recently: a long bear hug is the quickest way to give your child the sense of emotional safety they need during a tantrum. I move toward him to begin this process of coregulation, but my kid moves faster and kicks me square in the chest. Now, I see him scanning the room for objects to throw, which will require a whole new level of parental tightrope-walking: making sure he feels emotionally safe, while validating his anger, while holding the boundary that it’s not okay to hurl things across the room in a rage.

I wish I could just pick him up and gently rock him into a calmer state—for his sake, but also for mine. I find the particular pitch of his screaming hard to tolerate. I’m tired. I walk into the kitchen and start doing dishes—and then I feel guilty about turning my back on him while he’s clearly in distress. It’s okay to take a break, a voice inside me counsels. That was another post I’d seen at some point—and screenshotted. I call out to my son from the kitchen: “If you need to throw, you can throw a pillow.” Then I hear a crash: rather than a pillow, a toy truck has hit the wall.

In moments like these, I often wrestle with an age-old conundrum: what is a good parent?

In this issue of the magazine, we take a fresh look at this perennial question. Back in the 1950s, Carl Whitaker introduced his now-famous theory of “good enough” parenting, which involves giving a child loving care while also setting limits and enforcing appropriate consequences. But today, in the midst of countless parenting social media accounts and online coaching courses, the practical details of how to actually be good enough can get complicated, contradictory, and dizzying.

How can therapists cut through the confusion and offer struggling parents clear and useful guidance? What role does a person’s journey to becoming a parent play in their sense of well-being? How can parents effectively heal their own childhood wounds so as not to create similar ones for their kids? How can they raise emotionally healthy children while—importantly—protecting their own sanity and finding ways to thrive? 

With these articles, we hope to spark a conversation that dives deeply into the heart of parenthood—one of life’s most demanding, joyful, and potentially transformative endeavors.

Livia Kent

Livia Kent, MFA, is the editor in chief of Psychotherapy Networker. She worked for 10 years with Rich Simon as managing editor of Psychotherapy Networker, and taught writing at American University as well as for various programs around the country. As a bibliotherapist, she’s facilitated therapy groups in Washington, DC-area schools and in the DC prison system. In 2020, she was named one of Folio Magazine’s Top Women in Media “Change-Makers.” She’s the recipient of Roux Magazine‘s Editor’s Choice Award, The Ledge Magazine‘s National Fiction Award, and American University’s Myra Sklarew Award for Original Novel.