I couldn’t do it all and, by expecting myself to, I was just setting myself up for failure (Picture: Sarah Whiteley)
Carrying two plates of food into the living room, I placed them in front of my two children, Theo, five, and Immy, four. ‘Dinner is served,’ I announced.
‘Yay, hot dogs!’ Theo cheered, grabbing a finger bun before turning back to the television.
Sitting down on the sofa, I sighed. When I was pregnant – even when the kids were younger – this was a scene I never imagined I’d see.
Serving up processed meat in white bread, not a vegetable in sight, which my children scoffed mindlessly, their eyes glued to the latest episode of Muppet Babies.
Hardly a scene from a parenting manual.
But, to be frank, I’ve long since given up on the idea of being a perfect parent. Now, I’ve finally accepted that being a ‘good enough’ parent is good enough for me.
When I first found out I was pregnant, my husband Tom and I had high expectations about what we’d be like as ‘mum and dad’.
We agreed we would always have our evening meal around the dinner table together, something home cooked and wholesome – which we’d enjoy while catching up on our days.
We would go for long walks round the park on weekends, take our children to museums and the library. We’d read them books, limit screen-time and spend our afternoons playing family-friendly games.
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Slowly but surely, my mindset changed (Picture: Sarah Whiteley)
Don’t get me wrong, we never believed we could be perfect parents. I mean, does such a thing even exist?
But that certainly wasn’t going to stop us trying.
‘You never argue or shout, do you?’ my sister asked in amazement when she had come to stay for a few days.
Famous last words, eh?
Because of course, that kind of attentiveness and striving for perfection just isn’t sustainable in any aspect of life.
For me, it came to a head when we relocated from London back to my home town in the north of England.
It was, hands down, the most stressful thing I have ever done and, as we organised removal companies and completion dates, we just didn’t have the time to be at our children’s beck and call the way we’d always tried to be before.
Then, of course, there was the emotional toll as well, which frayed our nerves.
‘Can you please just wait a minute?’ I snapped sharply at Theo one night, as he tugged at my sleeve for the tenth time, asking me to get his Spiderman from upstairs.
Looking into his big brown eyes, guilt immediately overwhelmed me. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart,’ I said, bending down to give him a hug. ‘Mammy is just really busy.’
As tears filled my eyes, it suddenly struck me. It was just too much, trying to be a model employee, the perfect parent, the friend I had always been… the burden was crippling me.
I couldn’t do it all and, by expecting myself to, I was just setting myself up for failure.
When Theo was born, he refused to latch on – making breastfeeding impossible. I’d stay up after he went to bed to express milk so when he awoke in the middle of the night, there would be some ready and waiting for him. Then I’d set my alarm to do the same at 5.30am each morning.
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I took him to all of the recommended baby classes to help socialise him and create a stronger bond between us. And when I did allow myself 45 minutes a week to go to the gym, I’d time it so he’d be at the creche during his naptime and would never know we had been apart.
When he got older and Immy came along, Tom and I did everything they asked, as soon as they asked – racing to get drinks, stopping whatever we were doing to listen to them when they had something to say and always working our weekends around playdates and parties.
I was just one person – a working mum with only so many hours in the day to juggle all of the plates that living in today’s society brings.
I could only do my best and give up completely trying to get it exactly right, each and every single time. Slowly but surely, my mindset changed.
Once they’re passed the baby stage, you can ask your children to wait for a minute (Picture: Sarah Whiteley)
If my work ran over and I didn’t have time to cook a chilli or a spaghetti Bolognese from scratch, then it wasn’t the worst thing if I just stuck a pizza in the oven.
If the kids ended up spending a Sunday morning watching two films in a row, while Tom and I sorted out the house, I didn’t have to beat myself up over it.
It turns out, there is even a theory, called ‘good enough parenting’, put forward by UK paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the 1950s, which states that actually sometimes it is better for your child if you ‘fail’ them at some points, and aren’t always immediately available and responsive to their needs.
Of course, this isn’t referring to neglect or not looking after your children properly. Their physical and emotional needs still need to be met.
Rather, it’s more about realising that, once they’re passed the baby stage, you can ask your children to wait for a minute, rather than jumping to attention whenever they ask for something. And realising that actually parents can sometimes make mistakes – and that is OK.
Children, he said, can learn to experience that tears, sadness and anger are all part of life – and that it is good for them to experience certain levels of frustration.
Thank goodness for that!
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed or upset or frustrated when you lose your temper or you can’t immediately get them their third glass of water in 15 minutes – please, don’t.
Accept that, as long you’re doing your best, that is good enough. Really.
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I’ve given up.