I am a consciously incompetent parent. As time goes on I get more and more aware of how much I don’t know, what I am not prepared for, and how at times I am simply flailing around in the vain hope of doing my best. Sure, by baby number 3 my nappy changing skills were pretty robust and I could wind a baby without ceremony. But with each of my kids, my confidence in certain aspects of their care has been dampened by the new challenges presented by each of them; the foibles that were unique to them alone – one was a breath holder as a toddler, another a colicky baby, and don’t even get me started on the sibling dynamics as they get older – that’s a post in itself!
Each new challenge has left me stumped and unsure how to proceed, making me more and more conscious of my own inexperience. Changes in their temperaments and behaviour sneak up on me, arrive unannounced and catch me unaware, usually when I’m least prepared for it. In no way can my kids be described in absolute terms – they are unformed, shifting, changeable little creatures who keep me on my toes at all times.
I got thinking about this after reading a post on an online forum, in which one mother described a number of situations where she had observed other mothers failing to manage their children’s difficult behaviour. She attributed the comparably good behaviour of her two very young children to her own “good” parenting.
You can imagine what followed. Her comments went down like a lead balloon. Anger and accusations of smugness’ were hurled her way, left right and centre. It was powerful stuff on a grand scale. I felt indignant with these women, defensive on behalf of the parents she slated. This anonymous mother had touched a raw nerve. For me, her unforgiving assessments of other parents’ shortcomings sounded familiar, rather too much like the self-critical voice that starts in my head when I am struggling, unsure and feeling incompetent. When my kids’ behaviour falls short in public. When I feel shame wash over me for not having a better handle on things.
But in amongst this outpouring of dislike came the stories of parents of older children, parents whose children were teenagers, or had grown up. These parents reflected on the way their children had changed as they grew, how their behaviour had changed with their stage of development, how the parenting challenges they presented shifted, sometimes unpredictably. Accounts of beautifully behaved young children who grew into antisocial adults, parents of teenagers commenting on the new parenting challenges they faced. These parents warned the foolhardy author of the post not to count her chickens, suggested her children’s current behaviour was transient, could change at any minute.
If I was being generous, I would suggest that the person who wrote the original post was unconsciously incompetent. That she had no idea how little she knew. However, its also possible that she was conscious of what she didn’t know, but that this uncertainty was too uncomfortable to bear. It sucks not knowing. Its horrible feeling unsure. Especially when you’re responsible for another human being. Sitting in judgement, and heaping shame on others is easier, and frankly more comfortable. I know I’ve done it.
But this is not the story of one woman who misguidedly stuck her head above the parapet on an online forum. This is a problem at the heart of motherhood. This is what fuels the fire of stay at home mums versus working mums, formula feeding versus breast feeding, controlled crying versus co-sleeping. You know the list.
I don’t think I’m alone in being quite flummoxed a lot of the time. I wish uncertainty was emphasised more in the dialogue about parenting, and acknowledged as being a fundamental, even important part of the task. I think we’d all be kinder to ourselves, and others, if it was. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.
I shall leave you with the words of the physicist Richard Feynman who says:
“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure about anything”.
If only we could all own up to that.