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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The myth of the perfect parent/carer

One of the easiest traps I could fall into when writing this blog is to make parenting sound easy.

I am NOT here to make you feel inadequate.  Ladies and gents, parenting is NOT easy.  And carers, looking after other people's kids is NOT easy.  It's full of split-second decisions that you have to make when you're tired, distracted and irritated, when your own relationship with your partner or your self-image or your financial situation might be imploding, when you're surrounded by conflicting 'good advice', ridiculous rules of the centre, myriad unrealistic expectations... it's sometimes like parenting in the jungle, with a hungry tiger in every tree.

Carers are usually trained in everything except what they really need to know- HOW to form a relationship with each member of a disparate group of kids- and parents are no better off.  Nobody offers you training in parenting your particular child BEFORE you take the plunge (how could they? -your child will be unique).  On the contrary, there's a myth out there that it'll all fall into place due to your natural instincts.  After all, we're all here on this planet to reproduce, aren't we?  It's natural!

Bollocks to that.  'Natural' my *rse.

Let me give you an example that has stuck in my brain for the last 26 years.

When I came out of the labour ward after my son was born, I was put in a bed opposite a young woman who had also just had her first child.  She spent the next four days crying solidly out of pain and bewilderment.

I was in a bit of pain and bewilderment myself, after my close encounter with a 'top' obstetrician who had treated me like a piece of meat.  (Nobody told me that medical practitioners could be butchers before I got pregnant, either- but I digress.)  Somehow I pulled myself together enough to ask this woman if there was anything I could do to help.

It turned out that this poor creature had approached childbirth in complete ignorance.  Way too many hours later, she emerged with about 40 agonising stitches in places she didn't know she owned and serious emotional scarring, only to be faced with a perpetually whimpering baby who wouldn't feed.

"Everyone told me it would all come naturally," she sobbed, "and I believed them.  They're all liars!  It DOESN'T!"

Sadly, the same shocking revelation applies to rearing and caring for that baby, who may or may not have popped out with minimum fuss.  Parenting, for most of the human race, does NOT come naturally.

A few lucky people have had very positive parenting experiences themselves, and are able to reproduce those naturally by following their 'instincts' (which are, in fact, mostly 'experience'- not instinct at all).  Even those people make mistakes.  Even those people get nasty surprises, when their child turns out to be very different from them and has very different reactions to that positive parenting style.  Even those parents lie awake at night worrying about where to go next to deal with some sudden parenting dilemma, and wondering if they're doing the right thing.  Similarly, some carers seem born to do the job- yet even they come across children who leave them completely conflicted and bewildered.

The rest of the world's carers and parents embark on a process of trial and error, learning about their child as they go, consulting a range of gurus in the hope of finding solutions- their own parents, the latest popular parenting guide, web forums and so on.  Sometimes they end up more confused than ever, because there's a ridiculous range of views out there and everyone thinks their way is the best.

So maybe they go back to what they've been told about parenting being instinctive.  Sometimes their 'instinct' says that this child just needs more love, and sometimes their 'instinct' says this child just needs a good smack.  A lot of the time, what they think is instinct is actually their own stress, past experiences and strong emotions (sometimes hormone-affected) getting the better of them.  You can't see the boundaries yourself when you're that stressed, so how the heck can you set them for your child?

I feel very lucky to have been one of those who had excellent parenting myself, and was able to reproduce a style which incorporated honesty, respect and humour with a 'nudging'  approach to setting boundaries.  Nevertheless, even with this strong background, I can assure you that there have been times when I've torn my hair out about my own son, and wondered what on earth I could try next!  But mostly I felt a strong sense of direction in my decisions about parenting.  I was 'taught' my parenting and caring style, not by some fashionable manual, but by my experiences from birth.  I remember never having a moment's doubt that my mother adored me, even in those ghastly teenage years of testing every boundary when I thought I hated her.

Good mothers like that are quite rare, but if you look around you I think you'll find at least one real-life mother you know whom you admire.  I'm not talking about lecturers and textbook-writing 'experts' (definition- 'x': the unknown quantity; 'spurt': a drip under pressure) who can hide behind their qualifications and research without ever having brought up or cared for a child successfully themselves.  I'm not talking about mothers who are telling you how good at it they are from the safe and anonymous ether of the worldwide web.

I'm talking about someone you know, whose kids you know.  Someone who's real, who doesn't take herself too seriously, but whose kids seem happy, natural and distinctly non-feral MOST of the time.  Maybe she's not even a mother yet- maybe she's a young teacher whom your children adore.  How does she do it?

You can learn from that mother, or from that teacher.  I know that, because I've seen it happen.

My best friend's mother was, shall we say, reluctant to mother again when my friend was born; as a result, my friend's experience of being parented was sadly lacking in many spheres.  But when she became a mother herself, she had had the experience of being touched by my mother's care when she came to my house- do you remember that column about rude kids, where I suggested you make authentic connections with your child's friends?  I learnt that from my mother.

So my friend modelled her own mothering on my mother's style, rather than on her own experiences.  It was fortunate that I'd had my child a few years ahead of her, and so she was also able to see the way I tried to bring up my son in his early childhood- all based, again, on my own experience of being mothered.  I was able to be a model for her too, mirroring my own experiences from childhood so she could see her way.

Despite her poor background experiences, she has brought up two thoroughly delightful young men- not perfect young men, oh no! We can't hope for that!- but children who almost always behave in a way that makes her feel proud and happy, children who are themselves capable of love, generosity and honesty.

I didn't know that my friend had been so deeply affected by my mother's authentic caring until quite recently.  It touched me very much, and it's at least half the reason I started writing this blog.  If I can pass on some of these parenting tips from my own experience of being parented well, maybe some of you will benefit from my mother's gift too.

And even my mother was conflicted sometimes, especially when I hit adolescence.  I sometimes brought her to tears, just as my own son has with me.  It goes with the territory.

The perfect parent doesn't exist, the perfect carer doesn't exist, and anyone who pretends they ARE that perfect parent or carer with all the answers is fooling themselves.  Don't let them make you feel guilty, or (heaven help me) a failure.  We all fail from time to time, and if they're silly enough to pretend they don't, then honey, THEY are the ones with big problems!

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