Case Studies and bedtime stories

The EMBABE Diaries

How To Fail at Parenting – in Four Easy Steps

on September 29, 2015

Failure is really trendy these days. Whether it’s business, work, everyday life or spirituality, everyone’s harping on about it and its supposed virtues: Silicon Valley has its “fail fast” mantra and countless companies now give out “heroic failure” or “best new mistake” awards. Pema Chödrön (Buddhist nun and world-famous meditation teacher who is meant to be super-awesome but whose teachings I have repeatedly tried and failed – which I guess is a good thing, because it’s failure, right? – to read / listen to / practice) just wrote a book called “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”. I haven’t read it, of course, I’m still recovering from trying to read a previous book of hers. I guess I’m not that spiritual yet, but I’m working on it, I just need those cool prayer beads like the men have in Greece, in a deep shade of orange if possible, and then I’ll be all set for enlightenment. It’s a process, people. I’m on it. Watch this space for amazing, deep wisdom at some point in the near future.

Even my beloved Brené Brown is on the failure bandwagon – but thankfully her “Rising Strong” (awesome awesome awesome, am totally making it this year’s staple Christmas gift) is about how to recover from failing rather than purely about failing. Just like Brené to write something that’s actually helpful. Gotta love her. Will go back and re-read her book and apply it to my failure to read Pema Chödrön. Except that Brené quotes Pema Chödrön quite a bit, which is kind of awkward. But I digress. Back to other types of failure.

By which I mean the one type of failure for which you’re never likely to get a “best new mistake” award: parenting failure. (Ok, you’re probably also very unlikely to get a “best new mistake” award for failures of nuclear security or food safety, but I’m trying to make a dramatic point here, so bear with me.)  Thing is, parenting failure is at the same time socially unacceptable, personally crushing and impossible to avoid because, as we all know, almost anything you do is a parenting failure according to one theory or another. It’s a killer combo. And, if you’re really honest with yourself (I won’t tell anyone, relax), there are times when you find yourself doing at least one thing every day that is a parenting failure according to all theories.

Much like my son’s first weeks of school, for example. I never did get the hang of hashtags (hope the habit becomes obsolete soon so I can be spared figuring it out), but these have been weeks destined to be hashtagged – if we see hashtagging as the cries of my inner parenting gremlins making sure no shade of guilt was left unexplored, which I believe is the generally accepted use, right?

First there was my son’s first ever note from a teacher. His art teacher. It did not say “Your son makes wonderful use of colour and he will be the next Miro”. It said, in capitals, “PLEASE BRING WATERCOLOURS!”. Shoot shoot shoot. Yes, they did mention watercolours at that parent teacher meeting, which would have helped if I hadn’t forgotten that they said it, or the fact that the kid even has art classes on Tuesday (although saying I’d forgotten that he has art classes on Tuesdays would imply that I ever knew it, which would imply that by this point I had even checked his schedule, which would sadly be incorrect). Bizarrely, no other parents seem to have had the same problem – or so my son says. #parentingfail #poorkid #theymustthinkweretheworst #nowonderhehatesart #itsallyourfault.

The next day, my son’s long-suffering chess tutor (The kid loves chess for some reason. If he didn’t make a habit of forgetting to put his socks on in the morning, I’d wonder if he was really mine) quit. By email. Turns out I had (and not for the first time, I must confess) failed to ensure that my son was aware of, and prepared for, his weekly chess lesson. And what was I doing when I received that fateful email? Well, I was at a friend’s house, learning to meditate (is this a good time to blame Pema Chödrön?) The email was short and the tone restrained, but it was drafted with a keen awareness of how to push those mum guilt buttons (or maybe those guilt buttons are so sensitive that anything will push them, the jury’s still out). It mentioned that the teacher simply could not operate under the circumstances, and wished my son every success because he really had what it takes to become a great chess player. #parentingfailbigtime #shamestorm #heloveschessandiruinedit #howcouldyounotbehome #whatiswrongwithyou?!? And yes, of course the nanny knew the time of the lesson – as did he – and of course I had even written it on the calendar so they don’t forget, but I still stormed out of my friend’s apartment, cried my eyes out on the way home (bad idea on a bicycle, btw), and generally felt like a sorry excuse for a human being.*

Then that was that time when I forgot to set the alarm and we got woken up by the school bus driver ringing at the door. #parentingfail #badhairdaytoo #noweveryoneknows. On the bright side, we did get two kids ready for school in under 10 minutes, that’s got to be worth something, right?

And then there was this kiddie party I went to the other day. I think kiddie parties are only marginally less stressful than conferences, and conferences (on a good day!) make me feel like a 12-year old social outcast. I swear I was doing a good job, interacting socially and being pleasant and everything, until this other mum sat down in front of me and started explaining about how she was doing so much homework with her daughters, even if the school didn’t ask for it, and they were working from three different books, and even the one who was still in kindergarten had (mum-imposed, not school-imposed) homework every day, and all that was making her so, so, so tired, but still she persevered…and I leaned over the table and, much to my horror, heard myself blurting out: “Excuse me, but…why? Why do you do that?”. Which was clearly not the response she’d been expected, because I got (a) a blank stare, (b) “We do it because we do it” and (c) the quiet certainty (hopefully) that she would never ever want to arrange a playdate with my kids. #parentingandsocialfail #footinmouthdisease #nomorepartiesforyou (which was actually comforting!) and, most frighteningly, #whatifshesright.

What. If. She’s. Right. What if I’m actually wrong not to do three hours of homework with my four-year-old every day? What if I chose the wrong parenting path? What if, despite wanting all the very best for my kids, I will fail them? Well, that’s an easy “what if”. I will fail them. We all will. Partly because nobody really knows the “right” way to parent, despite (or precisely because) of how much is written on the topic, but mostly because we’re all just human. Having kids does all sorts of things to people, but it doesn’t make them saints and it doesn’t make them perfect. Somehow, someday, in all probability fairly often, we will fail our kids. And the best we can hope for is that all of our failings will be small and forgivable – which, by the way, won’t prevent our kids from obsessing about them with their therapists 20 years from now. So the best I can hope for is that, 20 years from now, my son’s greatest trauma will be that time when he was the only kid in class who hadn’t brought watercolours. In the meantime, I will love my babies as best I can, take care of them the best way I can figure out (which will involve even more failing), and probably continue to worry my head off about them and whether I’m doing it right – something which, strangely, I never fail at. Maybe that’s a good place to start this failure embracing trend everyone’s talking about. What was that Pema Chödrön book called again?

*For those who are now worried sick about my son’s future as a chess master – rest assured, he still plays chess, under professional supervision, two times a week. It’s fine, really.

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