You don’t overnight become the ‘perfect parent’. No one does. Because, despite what you may have heard, there’s no such thing.
Try and conjure an image of the perfect parent in your mind (they will most likely be a woman. Expectations of men are way, way lower). Perhaps it’s a celebrity or a real person, a friend even, who you see sharing their perfection on Facebook or Instagram. That person, no doubt, seems to glide through parenthood without a hair out of place. They spend their mornings weaving their children’s clothes out of hemp and dandelions, their afternoons making rice pudding out of breast milk. They are never unkempt, never tired, never frustrated and always f**king baking.
And they are con artists. Look closer. Look into their eyes and you will see the lie. These are the calm swans whose feet are frantically pedalling beneath the surface. For every staged photo of contained messy play and baked organic muffins fresh out of the oven, just out of shot you can be sure that there is a baby screaming the world in two and a toddler forcing a mashed-up biscuit into a dog’s a*se.
How many of these parentally perfect creatures have you actually seen, up close and in real life, in their actual habitat? I’m not talking about on social media. I’m talking about at four o’clock in the morning, when their baby has chicken pox and is projectile-vomiting up the Orla Kiely stem-print curtains.
The perfect parent isn’t real. It’s a fiction that just does not bear scrutiny. It’s like the Loch Ness monster: even if you think you see one from a distance you get up close and it’s just a pair of old tyres and a shopping trolley.
The problem with this fake ideal is that it is far from harmless. In fact, it’s poison. There is an entire industry of lifestyle philosophies and celebrity-fuelled culture built around this myth. And it really is the worst kind of myth. The perfect parent is an insidious, fictional bogeyman, an imaginary monster designed to scare parents into thinking they’re f**king everything up. That they’re not good enough. That they are inadequate. That there is an ideal out there somewhere that they just do not measure up to.
I don’t feel like this. I mean, I feel inadequate but I don’t feel bad about it. The base of expectation for dads really is so much lower than it is for mums. There is considerably less pressure to be an über-parent when you happen to have a penis. No one expects men to bake, in kitten heels whilst teaching a baby ‘phonics’. Men get credit for just generally being around and quietly high-five themselves for being the kind of guy who changes a nappy. (Yes, it’s 2017, yes, it’s ridiculous, yes, it’s true.)
But my wife, and every other mum I have ever spoken to, has felt this spectre of inadequacy at some point and felt it keenly. A sense that they are failing their little one, or that they should be finding the whole thing … easier. And it’s nonsense. A nonsense that can all be traced back to this high ideal of the perfect parent. A bullsh!t fantasy.
I have no idea what the answer is. How not to fall for this particular lie. I suppose the only thing parents can do is to try not to measure themselves against anything other than the happiness of their own family. If it’s a celebrity mum you imagine, when you conjure the image of the perfect parent, imagine too the area outside the flimsy set and the entourage of nannies and make-up artists that are required to make a celebrity mum look like parenting is a breeze.
And those non-celebrity ‘friends’ and acquaintances who perpetuate the myth with the smoke and mirrors of their own closely cropped photos? Try not to judge them too harshly. As annoying as they may be, they deserve your pity. Maintaining an illusion like this is tough and they are lost in the myth themselves.