“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”
― Philip Larkin
At first glance Philip Larkin’s poem about parenthood seems quite bleak but I have to admit I like the sentiment behind it. He’s acknowledging the basic human truth that we are all flawed and that by extension our experiencing of being parented and of being a parent is going to be flawed in some way too meaning that our obsessive yearning for perfection is pointless because perfection is impossible. In fact if you get caught up in the seductive fantasy of being the perfect parent and rearing the perfect child it can suck a lot of the joy out of the process. The journey from new parents to being the parents of adult children is a very enjoyable (albeit very challenging) one so it would be a shame if the joy got lost in the quest for perfection. I’d go so far as to say that our kids need us to make mistakes…they need to see and learn that it’s okay to be human, it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s really okay to be humble enough to apologise when we’re wrong. Allowing our children to see that parents make mistakes and aren’t ashamed to apologise when they do is a real gift to give them. If they’re afraid to make mistakes or if they judge themselves harshly when they (inevitably) do they are setting impossibly high standards for themselves and they are being set up for anxiety and depression in adulthood.
Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst from the 20th century had a theory that being a ‘good enough parent’ was essential if a child was to learn to survive their inevitable disillusion with the world and that it would enable the child to develop a realistic relationship with their internal and external realities. His ideal mother was three dimensional, imperfect, doing her best but failing at times and getting up to try again. I love the idea that ‘good enough’ is good enough. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t try to be as good a parent as I can but that when things go pear shaped I am able to cut myself some slack and accept that I’m human and can’t possibly get everything right all the time.
I was at a parent teacher meeting a few weeks ago. One of my daughter’s teachers was telling me about a class test my daughter had done where she had totally messed up the question. My daughter had told me about it as well and had realised after the test where she had gone wrong. The teacher said to me ‘I love when they make mistakes, it means they’ll learn something from it…she won’t make that mistake again because she knows where she went wrong’. I really wish more teachers thought this way and saw tests not as a marker of ability but an opportunity to deepen understanding. As a parent I feel the same way about mistakes, if they mess up and feel the consequences they will learn. Protecting our children from hurt is not always the kindest thing to do, sometimes they need to feel the hurt and to feel disappointed with themselves in order to learn something and to learn that they can survive negative feelings and not be overwhelmed by them. Sometimes too, they need to be disappointed in us and in the world because that is reality and as they learn to survive disappointment in us they will learn to cope with it and to know that it’s okay and that they can survive.