What I heard was a truth so simple, so obvious in some ways and yet so radical to our modern British ears, I had to share it with you.
I’m normally a BBC Radio 4 fan, it being the only thing keeping me from insanity and desperate boredom when the kids were tiny. You know, that stage when you had no time or energy to read anything with ‘big’ words, no illustrations, let alone words with ‘analysis’ or ‘reductionist’ on its pages…
Anyway, for some reason I had the radio tuned into BBC Radio 2 that day, and it happened to be the lunchtime ‘let’s discuss a serious topic of the day in a very sympathetic but still-ever-so-slightly-sensational voice‘ show that Jeremy Vine hosts. This time, it was on the subject of depression, and the specialist they had on was a psychiatrist, Dr Tim Cantopher, who’s recently reissued his book ‘Depressive Illness: the Curse of the Strong’.
In essence, he was saying that those who suffer from depression tend to be the perfectionists, those who keep trying to do everything just right. This is manageable when we’re young and have few responsibilities, but once we start accruing partners, jobs, mortgages and children, this perfectionist trait becomes the thing that can drive us into the ground… (starting to sound familiar yet?)
Sounds obvious, but the thing that struck me the most, and which prompted the loudest ‘Yes!’ from me, was the observation that this has become a problem for not just perfectionists, but for most of us who care about doing the right thing, because British society has placed an expectation of perfection on every aspect of life. Whether it’s being the perfect employee, parent, wife/husband, you name it, we are expected to do not just well, but constantly improve and excel.
This resonated with me so much that my driving got rather interesting (no really, it’s ok, I actually get more focused as I get ‘exercised’ about something, not less!). It expressed something I’d been subconsciously thinking for a while but had not put into words: the pressure to be perfect and to perform is a major root cause of stress in British society, in particular for parents.
Think about it. Never before has there been so much information out there about how to best parent your child, starting from before you’ve even given birth to the blighter. The options and dilemmas of bottle or breast-feeding, demand or routine, laying them on their front or their back, organic or pesticide-laden conventional
poisonfood, Child Trust Funds, the list goes on, and that’s before they’ve even turned 6 months! Your brain is spaghetti and your emotions are wrung out and you’ve not even put their name down for Brownies even before their 1st birthday… aaaaghhh!And then you have the reams of books by psychologists and psychotherapists on how upbringing affects adulthood, which adds another complicated heavy layer of anxiety and decision-making to the pie. By the way, I’m in no way dismissing this knowledge; in fact, I believe it’s been very helpful to many in understanding their problems, and is helpful in guiding our approach to parenthood. What I don’t like is the way it has mushroomed as an industry that has been used by sensationalists to add another onus onto parents.
And then there’s the work dilemma. You feel guilty if you do go to work, and bored if you don’t.
When you are at work, you’re under pressure to be furthering your game, improving performance and productivity all the time, as the competition from other companies or charities or schools is out there, breathing down your employer’s (or your own) neck.
When you’re at home, you switch on the radio to hear how studies have shown that children aren’t doing enough PE at school, or that toddlers who do music and movement classes are most likely to get A*s in their A-levels. Or a guest on Woman’s Hour quotes at you yet another study that couples who don’t have sex as much as 6 times a month are doomed to destruction. Ok, I exaggerate, but you get my drift…
No wonder we’re exhausted, stressed out and prone to depression.
Where’s it all come from? This blog isn’t the place to look into that seriously, but for what it’s worth, I put it down to a mixture of the blame culture (get it wrong at work and you’re sued); the heightened competitiveness that has pervaded all of society with the privatisation and professionalisation of everything (schools may still be funded by the State but league tables and admission by geographic location has created unofficial tiers and unprecedented pressure to perform); and what I call ‘professional parenting’: most mums have had good educations and good jobs before becoming mothers which is brilliant, but we’ve brought that professionalism into parenting – analysing all the options, seeking the best, evaluating how we’ve performed. To our peril.
But then Dr Tim said a wonderful, marvellous thing, and introduced a term that I loved: the Good Enough Mums.
“These are mums who basically love their children and want the best for them, but sometimes resort to the TV as a babysitter (only sometimes, Tim?!), and let their frustrations get the better of them by yelling at the kids every now and again“ (paraphrased). I love his tendency to understatement. I almost wriggled visibly in my seat as I felt he was talking about me, only in a diplomatic, understated kind of way.
“A study in the Isle of Wight was done some years ago“, he went on “into the children of these Good Enough mums and those from perfectionist mums who tried to do everything just right for their children. Interestingly, the children of the Good Enough mums performed better in life than the others.”
This was music to my ears. Dancing around the car now.
It’s hardly that surprising, really, as this pressure to perform often produces exactly the opposite environment for happy kids – stress, pressure, deadlines, a slavery to adult ‘chronos’ time rather than the ‘kairos’ time that kids naturally prefer (see Back to School post). I for one know how up tight and stressed I can get when I try to put my agenda onto my kids and cram in more than they can take. If we expect our kids to do homework, go to piano lessons, ballet, football, swimming, beavers and brownies all in one week, why do we wonder why they’re tired, crabby, misbehaving beings on a Friday?
What I love about this insight is that not only does it liberate the over-stretched mother (i.e. all of us) but it gives us permission to relax. I’ll say it again. Permission to relax. It makes a change from the usual should/ought/must do-things-better culture that is so pervasive.
It also confirms another fact that is rarely discussed publicly. That is, that no matter what we do, ultimately we can’t control our kids’ destinies. How they turn out is not entirely our responsibility. They are their own free agents, with their own unique make-up and choices. Now, throw into that pot another important, but again rarely-acknowledged point, that we all have to face the inevitable: we’re human, we will stuff up and we will make mistakes. There, I’ve said it.
We all know why this isn’t discussed more in public, thanks to the fear from politicians that the minority who don’t put their kids’ interests at heart will take advantage of this Good Enough Mum’s philosophy.
But those of us who know we fit this category (all you wonderful lot out there), we need to accept this square on and not feel too guilty about it. The Good Enough Mum’s philosophy says that as long as we’ve tried our best, this is ok. That is better than killing ourselves or our kids’ spirits in the process.
‘If you try to do the undoable, you’re going to get this (depression). Stress doesn’t make you ill. You do – by trying to do the undoable,’ says Dr Tim.
So, let’s hear it for the Good Enough Mums. Maybe we need to start a revolution… or at least a club – sounds more ‘do-able’.
Want to join?