Giving up the guilt

If the pursuit of perfect parenting sets us up to fail, ‘good enough’ could be our ticket to success

It never used to matter that I don’t enjoy cooking. That I take comfort in a glass or two of wine, tend diligently to my work inbox and would sooner stare at paint drying than play with a toy. None of these personal preferences made me feel in any way selfish, inadequate or ashamed until I became a parent. At which time they were rendered criminal offences, punishable by a mean little voice in my head. Some will say that voice belongs to a ‘guilt goblin’. Hurrah for Gin blogger Katie Kirby has eloquently dubbed it the Sh*tty Guilt Fairy.

From the moment you arrive in parenthood this critical creature casts its judgement across every perceived misstep, often launching its tirade on the topic of how your baby entered the world. ‘Cheater!’ screeches Katie’s Sh*tty Guilt Fairy to the mother who called for an epidural. ‘Failure!’ to the one who had a caesarean section.

In a culture where births are marketed as, ideally, au naturel, happy, tear-drenched scenes for all involved, those fairies are having a field day.

Writing an op-ed for The Washington Post titled ‘How the natural birth industry sets mothers up for guilt and shame’, obstetrician and gynaecologist Amy Tuteur points out that, “Like the perfect wedding, the perfect birth is often a fiction; women who buy into the idealised experience can face enormous disappointment, distress and feelings of failure…” And then come the seemingly endless post-partum guilt pangs.

“I recently felt guilty for not doing enough planned activities with my daughter,” my friend Bridget divulges over lunch, her one-year-old on her lap. “I see mothers on Instagram setting up painting stations and Play-Doh afternoons for their kids, and my daughter’s most exciting activity for the day might be watching the diggers excavate a hole next door.”

In addressing this guilt, Bridget reminds herself that different is not always better. “I let myself off the hook. Just because I can’t manage it today – or this week – doesn’t mean I won’t ever manage it. Plus, I think boredom is an important breeding ground for her own creativity to emerge and make something of nothing.”

The pressure on parents to provide activities for their children is a relatively new one. My own mother, one of 10 siblings, didn’t have any toys and spent much of her childhood moseying about the garden – a vastly different scene to that set by modern parents juggling side-hustles of child-entertainer, arts-and-crafts master and GymbaROO escort.

Perth-based psychologist Danielle Zappavigna deals with a lot of parental guilt in her work with mothers and fathers, many of whom feel like they’re not doing enough for their children.

“If you have the idea that you should always be able to meet your kids’ needs perfectly, that you will be constantly available to them, that you will know what is on their mind and be able to help them solve their problems every time, that you will always, without fail, meet their nutritional and sleep needs and interests, and get enough socialisation and the right types of toys to help their development whilst also trying to have your own interests and not go nuts without meeting your own needs, then you’re going to be in trouble.”

Turning to science, she says, can help take the edge off. “Attachment experts often talk about what ‘good enough’ parenting looks like. The concept I really love to use with clients is that you only need to really meet your child’s needs very well 30 percent of the time, and get within the ball park of meeting their needs about 60 percent of the time. I do notice when I quote these numbers at parents, usually, they physically relax.”

‘Good enough’ parenting is a concept pioneered by English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Donald believed that no child needs an A+ parent – only a passable one. One that may microwave their child a lunch of canned baked beans while plonking them in front of the television but is generally well intentioned.

For my friend Bridget, being a ‘good enough’ parent means “sometimes buying those squeezy packets of food and flying in the face of the disapproving looks you get at cafés”. But those looks can be hard to contend with. As can the midwife who assumes you’ll be breast-feeding, the mother-in-law who side-eyes your disposable nappies and the acquaintance who says they wouldn’t dream of putting their child into day care.

The decision of returning to work, for mothers in particular, can present a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum. Those who don’t bounce back into their careers might feel guilty for not ‘having it all’. Those who do might feel guilty about being self-interested. In the spiteful words of Katie Kirby’s Sh*tty Guilt Fairy, ‘Why did you even bother having them?’

“As a working parent, so often there are times where you want to choose your child – to be at school assembly, to go on the school excursion, to not take that urgent work call at home – and sometimes it’s just not possible,” says another friend, Courtney, a mother of two. “For me, being good enough means being kind enough, compassionate enough to myself to accept that I’ll make mistakes. I’ll not always be my most calm self, I’ll get impatient and frustrated, I’ll forget sometimes that I am the parent here.”

Psychologist Danielle says that getting things wrong as a parent is a given. “You are going to miss moments that your kids needed you not to miss. You will hurt their feelings sometimes. You will not be able to cope with every challenge easily without stress. You will lose your temper. You will choose to do something that is really important to you, for you or for some other adult or child, over the thing that is important to your child.”

“I think it’s more important for your child to see you make mistakes and repair them, to hit challenges and overcome them, to be overwhelmed at times and then recover, than it is for you to get it right all the time.”

When all else fails to flick my guilt fairy off her soapbox, I go back to basics. Are my children safe? Tick. Loved? Tick. Bonus points for smiles and that’s parenting done good enough for me.

Melanie Dimmitt

Melanie is a freelance arts, lifestyle and business journalist living in Sydney.

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