When I used to dream about becoming a Mum – and I did, regularly – I had something of a romantic vision of myself as fiercely protective and tirelessly supportive. I knew it was going to be hard at times but I also knew I was going to be good at it because it was what I was made for; all I’ve ever wanted.
Fast forward however many years and I have two boys who compose the very soul of me. The thought of being parted from them brings on such a desperate tightness that I can’t even begin to try to make sensible plans for emergencies. I love them so much I not only can’t put it into words but I can’t even comprehend it. All of the cliches are true.
Except the one we’re supposed to subscribe to about how natural motherhood is. That one is just a big fat lie.
There are, of course, lots of things that are blindingly obvious and that we can’t fail to get right: remembering not to leave them on the bus, for example. (Although, actually, I do know someone who didn’t manage that… Maybe these things aren’t universal.)
But in reality parenting isn’t all instinctive. We learn a lot from our own childhood and our experience of being parented, or not. We learn from other parents around us, even if what we’re learning is what not to do. We learn, or we think we learn, the standards we’re going to raise our children by long before we have them, and then we realise how wrong we were to think parenting was going to be quite that black and white once they’re there to be parented.
I knew there would be days when I wouldn’t give the boys my full attention or I wouldn’t want to take them to playgroup or I wouldn’t cook them three meals from scratch and I thought that was going to be my experience of bad parenting. Now any or all of those things can happen in any given day and I don’t even blink. It’s not terrible parenting to have to do other things: it’s real life.
Now the times I feel like a terrible parent are the times when a film finishes and even though we’ve all been plonked in front of it for an hour I still put it back on when Ted asks to see it again, and we still don’t move for another hour because I just can’t find the energy or the inclination; or the times when I not only cook chips and turkey dinosaurs for Ted but also give them to Ben; or the times when I’ve been pushed and pushed to my breaking point and I’ve snapped at one or both of them and then pretended to need the toilet while I sob into the loo roll.
I was talking to a friend recently about how much we hide. I’ve always tried to write honestly in this blog because that was the whole reason I started it: to tell the truth about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. I don’t know whether it’s the same for Dads (although I suspect it’s somewhat easier for them to admit their self-perceived “failings” by referring to the stereotypical expectations of the bumbling father) but we seem to expect Mums to just know what they need to do and get on with it, even if they’ve got a headache or they’re exhausted or they’re just plain pissed off. We’re supposed to put our own feelings aside while we fight for our offspring and shine with an inner strength that’s somehow instilled in us during magical pregnancies.
I can’t always do that. I can’t live up to those ridiculously high expectations and I don’t think I’d be a great parent if I could; I think I’d be an exhausted emotional wreck.
My friend and I, after many confessions and “I do that too!” exclamations, concluded that we’re definitely not the only ones saying our kids had tomato pasta when they had spaghetti hoops or that we’ve sat and watched the Lego Movie together when it’s actually been playing on a loop and we haven’t got dressed for three days.
What it leads me to suspect is that either we’re all terrible parents or, actually, that none of us are.
I’ll never be perfect but, as I said recently, there are days when OFSTED would label my attempts as ‘Good with Outstanding elements’.
And if all else fails at least I’ll always have my friend’s reassurance that my parenting is, at the very least, no worse than hers.