TMI, parenting and trusting your instincts (with added Frozen)

Do you ever get principle fatigue? Where you know, you believe and you accept that something is anger-making, worth getting angry about and should be changed, but you just can’t seem to pull enough of yourself together to care right this minute?

Genuinely, I think that’s where a whole lot of those incredibly irritating “bigger things to care about” comments come from. I mean, such a statement is self-evidently nonsense (not a zero-sum game, people), but I think it might come from that place of information overload. A place you reach where, even if you haven’t even done any particular activism lately, you just feel too tired to.

I’m at that point with so many things at the moment, but particularly parenting issues. I have reached the pinnacle of Too Much Information.

For example.

I grew up fat. I am thinner now than I was as a teenager. All those “wow, remember when I had a tiny waist and now I’m so wide!” stories are a mystery to me – that never happened. I would have loved an atmosphere where I didn’t go to a slimming club at 14. Or where one week I lost 4lbs because I’d been really sick and hadn’t eaten, and told them that but was still congratulated, and the following week I was cautioned to ‘be careful’ after gaining back half a pound now I could keep food down. Where I could buy clothes from the same places as the other girls. Where I could dress my age instead of trying to make clothes designed for 40 year olds work.

Of course part of it all is about the messages you get from your parents; as a girl, your mother’s modelling of body positivity is important. But I’m not here to shred her for every negative thing she said, or celebrate her for every positive thing she did. The fact is, she did her best and has always been an excellent mother. I understand that more than ever now.

Over the past year, there’s been a drip feed of articles about body positivity across the very brilliant communities I’m a part of, and the wider media too. In essence, this should be a good thing. However, like many things that go through the media wringer, it doesn’t quite arrive in the same state it started out in. “Girls of three reject fat dolls” because of “mothers’ griping, fathers’ sniping” decides one article. In another, “experts” decide that mothers “have the biggest impact on girls’ body image”. These are just a couple of examples, but there are many, many more. What I love about the gender-positive communities I take part in, is that there is a critical and interesting conversation around these – talking about how “mum” does not exist in a vacuum, and she didn’t just pick these negative ideas up out of nowhere. There are plenty of positive tips and affirmations and support in learning to give up destructive “fat talk” and those are awesome. I just feel like I can’t really bear one more of these stories being picked up by the wider media because all I can hear is “It’s. Your. Fault.”

Parents have ultimate responsibility for their kids’ safety and development, yes, but we are not magical creatures who can, the moment a person lands into our lives – be it through our own body, our partner’s or a surrogate or birth parent’s – suddenly forget all the conditioning and crap we carry with us. We will have flaws. Furthermore, we all know Philip Larkin was a bit right.

Now, I know what people will say at this point. The argument goes one of two ways.

1. If you’re feeling guilty, maybe you should reassess, and you’re not doing what’s right for your family.

2. These articles are only meant to help, not to put pressure on. THE MOMMY WARS AREN’T REAL, MAN!

The problem with the first one is that it’s ridiculous. First, it assumes that everyone is in a position to live exactly how they’d like in their ideal world, just by making a few simple changes like eating oats for breakfast or running a marathon. Obviously rubbish. Secondly, it assumes that guilt just evaporates if you try to address everything you worry about. That might be true of some things, but I suspect some worry and guilt is more habit than an actual gut sign that something is wrong.

The second one sort of is and isn’t true. I do think the Mommy Wars are massively overstated and some articles are linkbait trolling. And no, each individual article is of course, NOT ABOUT YOU. But the overall culture that is created when we keep repeating these tropes that parents are the ultimate pinnacle of influence – and therefore the insinuation that we can control all outcomes – is damaging. It is putting pressure on. It is, collectively, saying that there is no responsibility on the individual until they become a parent, and then there is ALL THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR EVERYONE (presumably even for non-parents, since they are never asked to take responsibility for anything more difficult than a cat, right? After all, if you don’t have a kid, you can’t possibly be a whole person).

And this is the point at which my head explodes and I simply can’t take anymore. Because yes, of course raising children is a mammoth and serious responsibility, but there is just no way that I can get it all right. No. Way. And, no matter how it looks from the outside, neither can anyone else.

Now, I’ve written, repeatedly, about things I think about and do and think are important when raising a child – like this piece about consent and making children kiss and hug friends and relatives that I wrote just before the issue hit the news, which I’d call very prescient of me except that I’m hardly the first person to have written about it. But I hope I’ve never suggested that this means I get it right all the time. In fact, I’m planning a follow up piece on that one to talk about some of the issues that came out of the first – and maybe consider practical ways to make it easier to make this a natural part of parenting. But then am I contributing to this feeling of TMI if I do that? Am I just adding to the noise?

Of course, one could just not read this stuff. But aside from the fact that I both personally like being part of the parenting community and it is highly relevant to my job, I don’t think “just don’t look” is a very convincing argument in a world where media are everywhere. That’s just silly. It is not possible to ignore the world, and to some extent we must all engage with it. And so – that sense of responsibility burned into my soul – I must ask myself hard questions about contributing to my part of it, and how I can do so without encouraging the feeling of being burnt out that I am rapidly boiling over to.

And so I come to parents trusting their instincts. It’s a powerful thought, this, but it’s phenomenally difficult to do because – contrary to intuition – you can’t shut down the flow of information altogether and expect this to happen. You can’t turn off the taps, because you need a drip feed of stuff that helps to keep you ticking, keep you thinking and keep you understanding the instinctive and deliberate things you do as a parent. How do you fit that filter to your mental tap? How do you decide what you let in, and what you don’t? Is it only the stuff you already agree with? We do that to a greater or lesser extent anyway, but you do have to challenge yourself occasionally.

That’s the tricky bit. I’d more than happily parent by instinct, if I always knew which instincts to trust. I know I can’t trust the ones that tell me never to let her out of my sight or do anything by herself, so I willfully ignore those thoughts in order to help her grow and be resilient, capable and brave. I know I can trust the ones that told me it was fine to feed her peanut butter whenever because we have NO history of allergies anywhere. Also the ones that say she does not have to be clean all the time. Ooh, and the ones that say I’m allowed to get seriously peeved at her, as long as at the same time I also listen to the ones that say that walking away and counting to ten before getting down to her level and talking it out is WAY more effective than yelling, even if yelling is what I really, really want to do.

Essentially I need to go from this:


To this:




Finding the balance

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.