I had notions about what my children should eat or could watch at home, how I would raise them to become well-rounded human beings, and not break myself doing it.
Then life happened.
The minute I held my daughter in my arms, I instantaneously felt deep, unconditional love for her, but not much ever went according to plan.
When I first became a parent, it was like being swept away into an ocean full of tears and laughter, joy and despair. It’s the steepest learning curve I ever encountered, the only 24/7 job without any guarantee of regular breaks, where the job description changes daily.
The early days of raising children are often filled with very little sleep or personal space, but also full of sheer amazement of how this tiny little human is turning into a real person, with their own thoughts, feelings, and personality.
For me, the most perfect moments as a parent are when my girl or baby boy snuggle into me, when I can take care of something that upsets them, or when they learn a new skill, seemingly overnight. When I am able to sit down with them and share a moment of undistracted bonding, for example, building a tower which they gleefully knock over, bursting into giggles.
And while there are plenty of special moments with smallies, there are also many moments of worry and self-doubt.
We all try our best as parents, but one emotion that I could not shake for years after having children was this feeling of never being good enough as a parent. Learning about my children and their needs felt like an exam I could never pass.
The quest for the holy grail of parental perfection often prevents us from seeing the joy in the messy moments, and stops us from forgiving ourselves for the mistakes every parent inevitably makes.
According to research, 12% of our daily thoughts revolve around comparison. While we can’t fully control comparing ourselves, we can control how and who we compare ourselves to.
What helped me cope with the challenges of parenting, especially at the very beginning of the parenting rollercoaster, was reading honest accounts of the struggles of other parents.
Relatable blog posts about poop incidents or tantrums in the supermarkets, or a mum’s quiet tears in the bathroom on days when everything goes wrong - those made me feel like there were other parents out there like me, just getting through the good, the bad and the ugly one day at a time.
The concept of the “good enough” mum is not new. The psychoanalyst and paediatrician D.W.Winnicott wrote about it in the 1950s, and emphasised that this kind of parenting style is not only better for the mental health of the parent but also for the child.
It encourages a higher level of independence and autonomous play and learning, than if the parent shows and does everything for the child.
Dr Mary O’Kane, an Irish lecturer in psychology and early childhood studies, expands on this idea in her new book “Perfectly Imperfect Parenting: Connection not Perfection”.
“In our parents and grandparents’ generations, children were allowed to fend for themselves to a much greater extent. There was not the same emphasis on being the perfect parent which we are exposed to today. We have set the bar remarkably high.”, she contends.
“Our approach to parenting today encourages us to be ever present, to engage in the ‘work’ of parenting as we would a competitive sport. Why do we seek perfection in this role?”
Dr O’Kane says that while we are forever focusing on getting everything right, we have created the perfect storm:
A strong bond with our children and teenagers will not prevent them from making mistakes, but will mean that when they need us, they feel close enough to ask for help. When they struggle, we will notice and, if they let us, talk to them and guide them through the tougher parts of life, the difficult choices.
Constantly aiming for perfection is robbing children of the opportunity to learn that everyone struggles, or misjudges situations. Life isn’t perfect and these are teachable moments that will foster more autonomy if we let them.
Once I got past all my preconceived notions of what a “good” parent looked and acted like, and just became the “good enough” parent I was allowed to be, life became more manageable.
While easier said than done, I try to not stress as much about meal or bed times, or my kids watching that extra hour of telly, and just roll with the punches.
Instead of sinking into self-loathing when I have been a less than perfect parent, I remind myself that while my kids develop and learn every day, so do I as a parent.
So, to all the mums (and dads) out there that need to hear this more often: you are doing a great job.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t cook organic food every day, that you aren’t always delighted when your child colours the wall, that the laundry pile never seems to disappear, or that you don’t always keep your cool in stressful situations. You are enough! Just be there. The imperfect, flawed, human you.
And as Dr. O’Kane summarises in her book, “Perfection is not required. Instead, the most important qualities for parenting are love and connection”. For more information about her book, go to https://www.drmaryokane.ie/perfectly-imperfect-parenting/