I read a lot. In particular, I read a lot about how I can be better. A better parent, a better writer, a better human.
Whilst I know I can never be perfect, there’s a small but maniacal part of my ego that refuses to let go of the belief that if I just work hard enough, perfection can be mine.
I’d like to petition the Oxford English dictionary to redefine perfectionism as an illusion of the human mind: a thing of fantasy that should not under any circumstances be pursued, or at least to carry a warning label advising, ‘side effects of intense frustration and self-doubt, if pursued.’
Whilst I believe growth as a person is achievable and a fundamental part of life (why are we here if not to love, learn and grow?) an over-emphasis on achieving a certain level of growth (usually the Instagram worthy kind) is fraught with black holes just waiting for the unsuspecting personal development junkie (me) to fall down.
Every day we’re bombarded with images, stories and content about the ‘right’ way to do things, or the ‘secret’ to whatever it is we feel we’re lacking. I should know, I’ve been writing about it for months.
I feel like I’m always searching for the path to contentment, and there have been many times when I’ve been sure I have found it. But no sooner have my feelings of elation bloomed than something inevitably goes wrong and elation turns to deflation, as the balloon of my excitement is rudely burst by that recurring annoyance that is life.
Yep, life, and all its pesky frustrations, annoyances and problems, honed to a point and always waiting to pop my unsuspecting bubble of joy. Yet could there be any joy without sadness? Could there be contentment without discontent? Peace without conflict? A Ying needs a Yang, after all.
Last week I had a bad day. A small and innocuous request led to a temper tantrum of epic proportions from my nine-year-old son. He has them down to an artform and we were a good five minutes into the raging, with all attempts to defuse the situation having been as successful as my attempts to stop eating cake (read: doomed from the outset).
The well-meaning advice from all those peaceful parenting books I’ve read and the Instagram parenting psychologists I follow would have me get down to his level and empathise with his strong emotions, recognising that it was my responsibility as the adult to stay calm and offer him unconditional love, his anger a clear display that he needed me in that moment more than ever as a safe haven, there to help him weather the storm of anger that was now consuming him.
Whilst this knowledge was surely somewhere in my mind, the possibility of accessing it was diminishing by the second. The fifth kick that connected successfully with my shin, accompanied by repeated bellows of ‘you’re an idiot,’ snapped something inside me which, on reflection, may have been bending in an alarming fashion for a couple of weeks now. As my amygdala took over and flooded my pre-frontal cortex with fight or flight chemicals, I became severely dysregulated (that’s neuroscience speak from all those brain hack articles I’ve been reading, which basically means I turned into a five-year-old.)
Reverting to my five-year-old self could explain why I then proceeded to (brace yourselves for this one, it’s not easy for me to admit) grab a cushion and whack him on the head with it. (I can see you now in my mind’s eye, audible gasp, hand to mouth: you did what?!). Not my finest parenting moment. Though to my credit, I promptly handed him a cushion to whack me back (which he obligingly did, laughing manically between continued shouts of ‘you’re an idiot,’) before I did what any self-respecting parent would do in this situation: I locked myself in the bathroom.
When the dust settled, I calmly reassured my son that getting angry doesn’t make him (or me) a bad person, as we watched a quick YouTube video on techniques to manage anger (one of them being distance, which, I explained reassuringly, is why Mummy locked herself in the bathroom), yet I spent the rest of the day loathing myself. As a (mostly) reformed shouter, surely there could be no greater crime than to lose my temper in front of my child and lock myself away to escape him? All those times I’ve managed to keep my cool in the face of adversity must surely have been discredited by these foul deeds, so naturally I spent the next couple of hours figuratively beating myself around the head with a cushion full of rocks.
This is the juncture at which I realised I needed to invite my new friend, perspective, around for a coffee. It’s easy to show my son compassion for his behaviour (after the event), whilst diligently explaining being angry doesn’t make him a bad person, but it took a long discussion with perspective to find that compassion for myself (and to stop my brain catastrophising about a future where my son was nursing a debilitating phobia of cushions which prevented him from sitting anywhere remotely comfortable).
It’s time for me to rout that perfectionist part of my ego and accept that I mess up. We all do. Every. Single. One of us. Yes, the Instagram parenting experts admit they’ve messed up too, but you don’t actually see video footage of them wailing like a banshee or lobbing stuffed animals at their kids, do you? So it’s easy to imagine you’re the only one. And they’re always talking about how they’ve changed their ways and you can too, as if losing your cool can become a thing of the past. Sometimes it can. But even if that problem is solved, you can be sure there’ll be plenty of new and ingenious ways to mess up, particularly in the realm of parenting. It’s part of being human.
I know I’ll continue to mess up throughout my life. When I reach the point at which I never make another mistake, I’ll almost certainly be dead.
Maybe the most important thing to teach my children is that we all make mistakes, how to make amends, and most importantly, how to forgive themselves. I could do with learning this too.
By the way, I’m thinking of starting an Instagram account for parenting f#*k ups. Let me know if you’re interested.