Medalling in Parenting

I found out this week I’d had a close brush with glory. In the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics, talent scouts apparently combed the country looking for tall people to be groomed into 2012 rowing superstardom. I’m not quite sure how they missed me; of lankier than average proportions, and with arms which suggest a shorter genetic leap between my Irish forebears and everyone’s simian ancestors than might otherwise have been supposed, my selection should have been a given.

My accommodating lack of ambition may, of course, have been a negative (along with the ability to trip over my feet while standing still). Sporting triumph aside, though, I think I’m happy enough in the absence of any killer instinct.

I doubt I’d win medals in the parenting stakes. I am, you see, unshakeably convinced that child-rearing isn’t an equation or a formula. According to my credo, effort doesn’t guarantee success, and no amount of dedication can stop – to continue the sporting analogy – the seat from coming out of your boat or your pole snapping as you vault (ouch).

I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek, of course. I do believe (I have to, fingers firmly crossed) that my input will help shape the people my children will become. But in the early days, the yardsticks for measuring parenting success are, of necessity, much cruder. How they eat, how they sleep, how happy/calm/contented our babies are: these are all that others see, and they’re what we compare ourselves with (consciously or not) – along with how we’re doing it.

The internet access I take so for granted now would not, I think, have been a blessing when I had my first baby. Although we dutifully did antenatal classes and did a bit of reading online, we eventually stumbled, awkwardly enough, into our own style of parenting. An additional burden of principles and guilt wouldn’t have helped my balance. The tone of some of the stuff online now genuinely dismays me. “Faster, Higher, Stronger” may be a worthy motto for competitive sport, but it has no place in child-rearing. Maybe it’s in my reading of it, but I do get the sense that some perfectly good principles are becoming, collectively, a rod for new parents’ backs; an all-or-nothing gold standard, with a nasty undercurrent of the consequences of “failure”.

I get particularly cross when I hear people reeling out pat that “a baby cries because its needs are unmet”. This may well be the case, but it can be a pernicious thing for a new mother to hear. I can only assume that my own children’s needs as newborns were for single malts and first editions, because no amount of carrying, feeding on demand and bed sharing (I would say co-sleeping, but that would only be half true) stilled the weeks of crying. Being told, even implicitly, that I was responsible for that because I just wasn’t getting it right would have been far worse than being told I was a failure for the fact that they weren’t sleeping through the night.

I suppose that mothers have always been judged; I’m just not sure that it’s an improvement to shift the criteria of success from the end result to the amount of effort put in.

Still, there’s good news. According to the (no longer crying) 6yo, I resemble an Olympian after all. When I’m annoyed, my red cheeks apparently make me look just like….Bradley Wiggins.


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