Not the work-life balance. I always think that’s a bit of a nonsense question, mainly because most of the time only half the population is asked how she plans to achieve it. Also, I think framing it as ‘achieving a balance’ is actually not particularly empowering; it sort of suggests another job you have to do and another standard to be judged on. Nothing wrong with standards and challenges, but we don’t need to find them absolutely everywhere.
No, the balance I’m talking about is the constant push-pull of power vs limitation, and particularly how this applies to being a parent.
I starting musing on this mainly because of a few articles I’ve read lately about the ‘best’ way to be a parent. No-one but the most outstandingly opinionated wants to say there’s a best way, but we all judge. All of us. Some of us learned not to quite so Judgey McJudgerson once we had kids and realised that no, actually, it’s not always possible to predict and entirely control their behaviour. But we all think we know better, and we have to, or we’d never have any confidence in our own abilities. While every parent feels like a tiny creature navigating a huge, dark ocean in the certain suspicion that the light ahead is an angler fish, that veneer of confidence – combined with a passionate desire to fling open every door and clear every path for our kid – is what keeps us going.
So we have confidence, and we have responsibility. Oh my, do we have responsibility. Like puppies waiting for a treat, we constantly want reassurance that we are doing our best: that we are good parents. The alternative is unthinkable. We know we have to be completely responsible for our child’s safety; either by physically being there to protect them or by making sure they’re in carefully vetted, trusted hands. We know that every success will be a credit to the child, while every failure is a demerit to the parent; the wagging finger of the tabloid reader is in our own heads, telling us it’s our job to make everything right.
Of course, this is true. But there’s also a problem, which is that there’s no such thing as a good parent. Or at least good parents come in infinite variety.
It’s easy enough, most of the time, to spot a bad parent. Disinterest, or worse, active uninterest. Abuse of any kind. Neglect. Relentless negativity or the other extreme: indulgence to the point of stupidity.
But how do you tell a good parent? Is it the one whose kid has the greatest successes? Wins the most prizes? Makes the most money? Is the most content? Is widely lauded? Has a family of their own? Or is the kid who actually has a pretty hard time because of circumstances the family could do nothing about but still comes out of the other side more or less in one piece? Should we be judging the parents, the kid or the society when it comes to those kids that don’t make it through okay – can’t you have done everything you possibly could to be a good parent but still not have a happy, safe, contented child?
Bad parenting is judged by both method and outcome, but it seems people only want to talk about the latter when it comes to good parenting: “My kid’s in one piece and not on drugs!” “No teen pregnancies here!”. Not only does that expose some prejudices, it also reduces the positive ‘good’ down to the neutral ‘not bad’.
Plus let’s not forget: once the kids go to school, all bets are off. You’ve done your damnedest until then to fill them full of your good, solid, positive values and from now on you’ll be fighting their peers and wider influences all the way (or at least until they have kids and turn into a version of you). Which is not to say their peers are wrong and you’re right, or even that you won’t often be on the same page. But there comes a point when it takes a village, and the village ultimately has a very big mouth.
Parents have enormous power and, superhero-style, tremendous responsibility. They also have limitations. That’s the balance. That’s the struggle. Finding the point in the middle where those intersect and effectively, religious or not, employing a version of (at least the first half of) the serenity prayer.
And once you’ve grasped your own balance, don’t forget to set it free into the world.
Or, to sum up this post in a single sentence: A supportive smile to the mother with the screaming toddler goes a hell of a long way.