Perfect parenting is bad for us, and our kids

From the moment my first son was born I’ve questioned my effectiveness as a mother. In the early years I was confounded by decisions I had to make – How much do I let him cry before I pick him up? Do I feed him every four hours or when he’s hungry? Six years later and the decisions don’t get any easier, the context simply changes; should I send him to more extra-curricular classes? Do I limit his screen time?

In an effort to feel that I had one iota of control I would be regimented in certain aspects of my day. The boys’ lunch would be ready by noon latest, snack at two thirty and dinner would be on the table at five o’clock, on the dot. They would be in the bath by 6.15, and both in bed by seven sharp. I will admit that as a result of this strict schedule they do now eat and sleep well, but I’d be stressed to the bone by the time they were in bed, due to sticking so rigidly to those strict scheduling ‘rules’, endorsed by certain baby experts, who in my naivety I looked upon as ‘all knowing’.

I came across the work of Winnicott, a pediatrician who in 1953 developed the ‘good enough’ parenting concept. With this concept he was recognising the unrealistic demands for perfection that parents placed upon themselves, which undermines their efforts in meeting the needs of their children. He stated that, “Her [the mother’s] failure to adapt to every need of the child help them [the child] adapt to external realities.”

‘Failure’ refers to the fact that mum is not always able to make things better, and in discovering this simple concept I felt as though the dark cloud had been lifted. Those words ‘good enough’ stayed with me and consciously I began to apply them to my own parenting whenever the feelings of inadequacy threatened to engulf me. It freed me from the expectation on myself to be a perfect parent, which came from thinking I could control everything that happens to my children. In my mind, Winnicott was saying that whatever I do, as long as I do my best, I will be a ‘good enough’ mother, even if I make the wrong decision sometimes. There’s no point or purpose in busting a gut to be a perfect mother. In doing so I am making it tougher on myself than it need be.

This constant bombardment of guilt and anxiety about what I should or shouldn’t be doing with my children wears me down. And, as if this weren’t enough there is a strong element of competitiveness in parenting. If we’re not trying to live up to the impossible standard of some celebrity or childrearing guru then we are competing with our friends. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a sense of smugness if I’m virtuously helping my boys create landscapes out of old egg boxes or making home made soups and casseroles. Then there are times when I’m cringing with inadequacy whenever my son mentions his friend’s busy after-school schedule of Cricket, Gymnastics and creative writing.

I have come to realise that by trying to be a perfect mother I was trying to guarantee a perfect outcome, when in fact, if I take things easy, make more effort to relax and not worry if one whole day passes without reading a book to the boys, or doing a craft with them, then it’s not such a big deal.

It is important that we keep in mind something that Winnicott goes on to say, that attending too much to our child’s needs is a sure way to mess them up. Striving for perfection in raising our children will also mess us up as we turn into competitive, nervous wrecks. If we try too hard to make everything right for our children, we will fail, it is impossible not to, simply because as they grow and separate from us we will not be able to control everything that happens to them. As Winnicott says, a parent’s failure to satisfy a child’s every whim helps the child adapt to the reality and later, the demands of the social world, which they will soon be entering, alone.

Parenting comes with its own unique brand of inadequacy, something I’m now very well acquainted with. I’m still not sure if I’ve made the best decisions but I think I did my best with the knowledge I had available to me, and my boys have not turned out too badly so far.

We parents are driven by our need to satisfy every desire in our children, conscious or otherwise, and outside pressure or ‘advice’ does little but confuse and frustrate us. We need to trust that we are doing the best for our children and despite our best efforts we will fail at some point, some of us more dramatically than others, in different ways and at different times. None of us can get it right all the time, so we should stop trying so hard and stop beating ourselves up about it. Just as we expect our children to make mistakes and learn from it, so must we. Our children do not need perfect parents, but they do need sane parents