As babies my two boys were a wonder to me, and a chore. I loved them deeply but resented the all-encompassing attention they needed. In the depths of baby shit, painful and bulging boobs and delirious inadequacy, I looked ahead to the time when they would be able to use the toilet, communicate their needs, and engage in conversation. Now they are able to do these things, I miss the younger versions terribly. Those tiny, cuddly, precious, vulnerable bundles are now noisy, heavy, whining, messy boys of 5 and 6, who challenge me with Star Wars trivia, use the house as an army barracks and alternate between fighting amid themselves and ganging up on me.
Rarely now do I get the chance to sit quietly and have a cuddle with them, looking deep into their eyes while they gaze at me adoringly. I miss them. I miss burying my nose into their hair to get the full benefit of their baby smell. I miss playing ‘Round and round the garden’ on their tiny hands and feet – so perfect and precious. I miss their giggles, and the way they fitted into my embrace like a conker into its warm cosy shell.
In the beginning, when things are tough, our new parent heads are filled with the future milestones of our offspring. It’s ironic, and one of the failures of human nature that we don’t recognise these phases as temporary, we’re too busy wishing they would hurry up and learn to hold the spoon themselves/use the potty/walk unaided. It’s only years later when we look back, do we realise that so many chapters have gone, to be lost forever.
As toddlers, they annoyed me with their night-time cries. I wished their lives away looking forward to the time they would sleep through. Now I miss these night-time reunions when the world is quiet but for their contented sighs. I wish I’d been aware of the last time I’d change a nappy, because, poo splats aside, I miss those few moments when we’d be fully engaged with each other. Had I realised that this phase in his life was ending and would never return, I would have savoured each and every stage, said goodbye to each version of my boys as they passed.
I know that soon I will miss them crawling into bed with me in the morning, or their still childish giggles at the words ‘bum’ and ‘poo’. Soon these simple amusements will be replaced by teenage sulks and an ear-aching silence.
I’ve a few years left to go yet but I know that, judging by the speed with which these last six years have passed, the next ten will fly by in the blink of an eye.
I urge all mothers of babies and toddlers who are struggling with the mind-numbing day-to-day to take a moment to embrace in all its glory; the feeding, potty training, night waking – all of it. Because whatever stage your child is at now, he won’t be there for long. You will look back, all too soon and wonder where those years went, and you will physically ache to enclose that small child in your arms again.
Nothing prepared me for the enormity of parenting when it began, and I fear nothing will prepare me for the end of their childhood, when they swan off into the world without a backward glance.
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
I’ve been trying to limit my children’s time in front of the TV since they were knee high. I know it’s bad for them but I’m not sure why, something to do with brain development. And I’ve tried, believe me, not to succumb to the gentle and mesmerising promise of a half hour’s peace at the end of a hectic day.
Five years ago as a mother-to-be, I hoped and prayed for a son, a golden boy who would carry his father’s genes and name into future generations like a gallant captain of destiny. To my utter delight, two years later I had a hot-headed, tantruming toddler with a penchant for sucking everything that came within his reach, including his playmate’s dummy and any old soggy fag butt that he came across on the street. I also had another six-month-old who giggled at every move the two-year-old made.
Opening the front door I’m confronted with a sight that could suggest we’ve been burgled. I keep my eyes focused on the middle distance to avoid looking at the detritus at my feet…
At a recent trip to a toy store I witnessed a G-force-strength tantrum over a Woody doll. The mother was attempting, and failing, to wrestle her whirlwind offspring into his buggy while around them other parents stared aghast at the poor woman’s attempts to pacify him. “Perhaps you can have a Woody Doll for your birthday darling.” She says as she tries to strap him in. He screams louder. “Shall we ask Grandma for one?” She tries over the din. That doesn’t work either so she quickly grabs the toy from the shelf and marches to the till.
My four-year-old will be going to school in September. I am both dreading it and looking forward to it, and it has brought up a number of issues that I would have preferred to avoid.
It seems only yesterday that I was at the hospital screaming my head off as my first son battled his way out of my womb. Well, actually he was a breech baby so the hospital, in it’s wisdom, decided it best for all that I had a C-section, so in fact he was yanked out of my lower abdomen, but not before he’d given me a good beating from the inside.
I collect my boys from nursery. After 4 hours I have missed them terribly. I covet their hugs and I am not left wanting. So warm, consuming, deep.