I don’t know where we ever got the idea that perfect parenting is a possibility. Every second mother I know beats herself up about her imperfections on a regular basis. Mothers everywhere agonise over whether their lack of consistency is going to result in life-destroying character flaws. We lie awake at night worrying if our growling and nagging and shouting are wreaking havoc on our children’s fragile psyches. We compare ourselves to all the other mums who (we imagine) have it all together – when in reality, no one does. Not a single person. We are flawed and imperfect because we are human. That’s just how we are – none of us are perfect.
I know that I am far from perfect and to try and pretend otherwise would just be silly. Maintaining a pretence of perfection fools nobody. There is something very freeing about admitting you fail, acknowledging your weaknesses and mess-ups, and letting others see you as the human you are.
Keeping it real
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for a very long time and consequently I’ve worried endlessly that my struggles would hurt my kids. I’ve worried that they would be damaged by the way I was often debilitated by lethargy, headaches and a need for quiet. I’ve worried about what observing my occasional freak-outs would do to them to. When they saw me retreating to my room, crying and overwhelmed, was it making them feel unsafe or insecure? When they saw me struggling to get moving in the morning, when they saw me forgetting things and panicking – how was that affecting them?
I had a great big extra helping of the usual ‘mum guilt’ added to my plate, because on top of being your typical human parent, I was also one who went through the blues. And that’s not even factoring in the extra fun that comes with dyslexia and my tendency to be forgetful (for example, getting so absorbed in a project I forget to make lunch. Oh dear. Luckily I’ve taught my kids to butter their own bread). Yep, if anyone had reason to feel guilty about her lack of ‘Mum perfection’, it was I. Then I had a conversation with my amazing daughter, Abby, that went like this:
(Scene: Driving in the car on our way home from somewhere)
Me: (Apologising profusely for the latest thing I’d promised to do, then forgotten about) I can’t believe I forgot that! I’m so sorry. Aw, man. I wish I were a better mother to you. Seriously, I wish I were the kind of mother who was better at this stuff.
Abby: (Adamant) No, Mum! Don’t ever say that. You are an amazing mum. Really. I like the way you mess up and forget stuff and then apologise. It’s actually pretty good because it lets us know it’s okay to not be perfect.
Me: Really? You really think that?
Abby: Yes! You know how some things stick and others don’t? (She was talking about my dodgy memory, which she has inherited. We forget important things but can remember random stuff.)
Me: Um, yeah?
Abby: Well, it makes me feel better to know that you’re not perfect either, and that you forget stuff like I do. It makes me feel okay when I mess up, because I know you get it.
Wow. That was me told. My daughter likes that I’m not perfect because it gives her permission to not be perfect either. The key here is honesty and transparency. This means acknowledging imperfection. It means admitting that I’ve messed up and asking for forgiveness. It also looks like being able to laugh at myself for my dodgy memory and rolling my eyes at Abby as we chant together, “Some things sti-i-ick!”.
On the bright side
And my freak-outs, my low moments? They come in handy for empathising with my adolescent son who sometimes has struggles that are all too familiar. Because of my own struggles, I can read him like a book. I have insight (because I’ve been there) and I know how to help him. Near the end of last year he began experiencing anxiety attacks, so I took him straight to our family doctor. “And how long has your son been experiencing these symptoms?” the doctor asked. “Since yesterday,” I replied. She looked at me a little strangely and I felt compelled to explain. “I know how important it is to get right on top of these things quickly,” I told her. “Before the anxiety becomes too big and too ‘set in’. Nip it in the bud, you know?” She nodded. My doctor has known me for a while and understands that I’ve learned these things the hard way.
I have learned that by recognising the signs early and seeking help immediately, we are able to get to the heart of the matter before things get too desperate. Without personal insight, I would not have known what I was dealing with, what I should do, or whom I should turn to. In this case, we were able to not only find immediate help for the symptoms, but were also able to gain an understanding of the underlying cause, which has made the world of difference for my son long-term.
I remember a child psychologist once saying to me that I was the right parent for my son, because my randomness and lack of organisation has helped him learn to be more flexible. She observed that he would have been inclined towards inflexibility, had I been able to supply a more structured home environment. My lack of consistency has helped him become more adaptable. In a world where you can’t really control anything, this is a good way to be.
Interestingly, my imperfections actually help me be a better parent, since I am raising humans who are also imperfect. If I focus on my shortcomings, and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge when I hurt others, I am modelling unhealthy – and unhelpful – behaviour to my kids. But, if I forgive myself when I fail and let my kids see it, then they will know how to forgive themselves when they mess up. If I ask for their forgiveness when I let them down (instead of being self-righteous and justifying my actions), then they are more likely to admit their faults and ask forgiveness of others. If I acknowledge the things I struggle with, and yet accept myself for who I am whilst continuing to persevere, I empower my children to do the same. If I can laugh at myself when I fail, instead of beating myself up, I give my children permission to do likewise.
I’m getting better at all this. I’ve had to relearn some stuff because things were done differently when I was growing up. Parents in those days were ‘always right’, even when they weren’t. Subsequently, parents often set themselves – and their children – up to fail in the face of unrealistic expectations, but thankfully we can learn from their mistakes and move forward. When we treat ourselves with more respect, our whole family will ultimately benefit.
So if you’re like the rest of us humans (i.e. imperfect), but you’re beating yourself up for it while feeling guilty for all the ways you don’t measure up as a parent, I hope you take encouragement from this happily imperfect mum – there really is an upside to imperfection, I reckon.