Some of the dads in the Daddy Blogging world put me to shame in the fatherhood stakes. Hell, let’s face it, MOST dads put me to shame. They are fantastic parents in so many ways. They do it with wit and instinct. None of it derived from manuals about how to do this and how to do that. They’re role models. Naturals. But there many parents – mums and dads – soak up the wisdom of others from books. It’s an industry which plays on the insecurites of all of us who ask the questions: Am I doing the Right Thing by my kids? How can I be perfect? Well, let me tell you, there is no such thing as perfection. Not, at least, according to my wife, the mother of my two boys and my stepdaughter. This is what she wrote in her column for the women’s weekly magazine she now edits…
This week’s theme: The TRUTH About Being a Perfect Parent (and who would want to be, anyway?)
First there was a clunk, then there was a thud, then there was silence. And then, as predictably as night follows day and Dec follows Ant, there was a MU-UM!
The cry, in stereo, was accompanied by the clatter of footsteps on the stairs and the sight of two faces, swollen and wet with tears.
‘She pushed me, Mum,’ wailed the four-year-old.
‘I did not!’ cried the seven-year-old. ‘He kicked me.’
‘No I didn’t,’ snapped the four-year-old, giving his sister a shove so her head banged against the doorframe. She shoved him back and they both started crying again which, in turn, set off the toddler.
On the cooker, the pan of pasta I was preparing for tea began to boil over.
And so did I.
It had been a day of frustrations and this was the final straw.
‘Stop it!’ I shouted. ‘Can’t I leave you two alone for two minutes without trouble?’
‘It’s not my fault,’ said the four-year-old.
I looked at his sister.
‘That’s right, blame me!’ she shouted.
‘I do blame you!’ I yelled. ‘I blame you both. I’m fed up to my back teeth with your bickering and moaning and complaining. Now go away!’
The moment the words had left my lips I knew I’d said the wrong thing. I’d lost my rag and that was never good but there was no going back. The more I shouted, the more the children cried. Then the pasta boiled dry. And that made me shout even more.
How had it ended up like this? I wondered. How had I gone from nought to frazzled in less than a minute? Where had I gone wrong?
‘I’m a rubbish mum,’ I said to The Partner Who Is Not My Husband later that evening. ‘No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get it right.’
‘What are you talking about?’ he said. ‘You always do a great job.’
‘Thanks, love,’ I said.
But, if I’m honest, I don’t think I do.
And it turns out I’m far from being alone. A flurry of new surveys reveals many parents – especially mums – feel under increasing pressure to be perfect but find they’re coming up short. In one poll, 98% of mums and dads said they often felt they’d failed to be good role models to their kids despite striving to do their best. In another study, one in three mums felt they were failing to meet their own high standards at work and at home.
This growing feeling of being ‘not good enough’ has spawned a mini industry in parenting advice. The day after my maternal meltdown, I was shopping for children’s book when I saw something that made me stop in my tracks. There, on the shelves, was row upon row of books to teach me how to be a better parent. Actually, no, not just a better parent – the titles promised to make me a ‘magnificent’ parent, an ‘amazing’ parent, a ‘perfect’ parent.
Well, it was too good to resist.
I grabbed a handful and hurried to the check out.
At home, I made myself a cup of tea, settled down and opened the first of my books. It was called How To Be An Amazing Mum When You Just Don’t Have The Time.
when there was a shout from upstairs.
‘Mum, can you help me with my homework?’
I put down the book and went to do the nine times tables with the seven-year-old. While I was there, it turned out the toddler needed a nappy change and the four-year-old wanted to tell me about a bug he’d found under a stone at nursery. It was some time before I could get back to the books.
When I did, I tried Divas and Dictators….
I was just about to get stuck into….. when there was another shout from upstairs.
‘Mum, can you come and tuck us into bed?’
I put down my book and went upstairs again. In fact, every time I tried to learn the secrets of how to be a perfect parent, my kids got in the way.
How to be an amazing mum when you just don’t have the time? Well, I didn’t!
Eventually, though, I managed to find some time to take a good look through the books. There were lots of clever tips and some really good practical advice – although I could have done with a chapter on How to be an amazing mum when there’s one of you and three of them and the washing machine’s just flooded the kitchen.
There was plenty of daft stuff too. Burning off the calories at the playground while the little ones play, anyone? Oh yes, I’d forgotten that to be the perfect mum I had to look like Claudia Schiffer on the school run, too.
Despite offering slightly different solutions to problems, in the end, however, the many thousands of words of advice boiled down to one simple and fairly obvious statement: to give our kids a better childhood they need more family time, less TV, a good moral example and lots and lots of love.
Trouble is, such a solution is at odds with modern life.
When I was a child my mum, like many other mothers, gave up work to care for me and my sister. Not spending enough time with her children was not something Mum ever had to worry or feel guilty about. But now things are different. More mothers work. Two thirds of pre-school children spend at least part of their week in childcare. Mothers these days are time-poor and guilt-rich.
‘I feel sorry for you mums today,’ my mother said to me the other day. ‘It was so much easier in my day. There wasn’t all this advice. We just did what the health visitor told us.’
Among the things the health visitor told my mum to do with her babies was to feed them only at set times, to leave them outside in their prams for hours on end and to let them cry and not to pick them up. As we got older, if we were naughty we got a smack on the hand. Older still, and it was clip around the ear.
‘I can’t believe you did that!’ I said to Mum.
She replied: ‘We did what we thought was best. And, anyway, you turned out all right.’
And that’s the point, really.
I didn’t go off the rails because my mum didn’t practise the rule of six pieces of praise to one piece of criticism. I didn’t turn to a life of crime because she failed to stop the Hoovering in order to have a tea party with me. And I don’t look back on my childhood with a sense of misery or deprivation because she didn’t spend every moment of her time playing with me.
I had a wonderful and happy childhood simply because I always knew I was loved.
There’s nothing wrong with having an advice book or two on your shelf for those meltdown moments when you need some back-up. But they don’t, and shouldn’t, ever take the place of a mother’s instinct for loving and giving.
As one Take a Break reader put it: ‘I have always struggled with pressures of being the ‘perfect’ mum and providing the ‘perfect’ family and everything my children are ‘supposed’ to have. What I lost sight of was that all my kids need is love, good parents and to be happy.’
It’s worth noting that in the same survey in which parents said they felt like failures, a group of children were asked to come up with their recipe for the perfect parent. They said the perfect parent would help with homework, would cheer them on in the school play or at sports’ day, would play with them and, most importantly of all, would give them lots of cuddles. The majority – some 70% – said that when they became parents they would like to be just like their mum and dad.
The reality is there is no such thing as a perfect parent. It’s just a marketing tool designed to sell books. But there is such as thing as a good enough parent and, actually, it is what most of us are.
Last night, as I tucked the children up in bed, the four-year-old put his arms around my neck and gave me a squeeze.
‘Mum,’ he said, ‘the other day when I was crying and you were shouting I was still your friend. And I still loved you too.’
And right there is the real secret to parenting and, guess what, it turns out it was something we knew all along.
I’m thinking of writing a book about it. It would be called The REAL Truth About Being a Perfect Parent and it would probably be the shortest book ever written. Inside it would read: All you really need is love.
And the rest, as they say, will take care of itself.