From the moment I knew I was having a baby, I wanted to be brilliant at it. I like being good at things more than I like most things for their own sake, and, having failed at not getting pregnant (which was the original intention), I was going to ruddy well ace the back-up option. If there was a right way to do a thing, I was going to find out what it was and do the hell out of it. I imagined myself sitting atop my exceptional gestational knowledge as if straddling a show pony, riding it to the gold cup in the Giving Birth gymkhana.
Actually, there was no trophy. Turns out no quantity of wide-eyed questions addressed to the midwife regarding the application of sweet almond oil to intimate areas can stop labour from turning into an anguish of grunts when things go off the birth plan. “No, I don’t think that will make much difference,” said the midwife, with the air of someone who knew much more than I did about the proportions of babies’ heads – and knew also that I would be finding out for myself soon enough. I did find out, and sweet almond oil did not help.
Stuck on homework
Not being brilliant at giving birth was annoying, but that was OK, because there was still the possibility of redeeming this child project by being really good at parenting. My kids were going to be so well adjusted, you’d need a set of atomic scales to appreciate fully the subtle ways I’d calibrated the exquisite balance of their personalities. They would be disciplined, yet playful. Wise, yet rumbustious. Affectionate, yet independent. And they would be confident in seeking out new experiences, all because of the studied perfection I was going to bring to raising children.
Oh, and I wasn’t going to be showy about it. There would be no try-hard engagements with the NCT where I proved my parental prowess, no anxious muttering to my peers about how tired I was – because the evidence of my excellence would be in the fact that I wouldn’t even look like I was trying. My seeming lack of effort would be my monument to myself. I’m Ozymandias pushing a Maclaren one-handed. Stoppard, Spock, Ford: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair, because I can do this childrearing malarkey with my eyes shut.
Actually, there was . . . well, you know. It just didn’t work out as quite the dazzlingly effortless success I’d hoped. As my children got older, they seemed somehow wary of failure, which was odd, given the huge effort I’d put into them being well-balanced and fearless in their embrace of the new. I mean, this cautious perfectionism couldn’t be anything I’d done wrong because I’d been very careful to project unfailing excellence in my relationship with my infants. So that was disappointing.
Then there was the work ethic. Obviously I have the standard parental eye defect that makes my children self-evidently the most charming, most beautiful, most intelligent children in the world, but there was no denying this: they didn’t seem to like making an effort. Homework was an ongoing struggle. “What’s the point? Either I know it or I don’t,” said the boy, in answer to my earnest treatise on the value of self-improving labour. Meanwhile, the girl perfected a form of early reading that involved not looking at any of the words in the books that came home from school and then rolling off my lap at the first chance to escape the narrative exigencies of Jane’s Car (Jane had a car, it wouldn’t go, oh dear said Jane, a man came to fix Jane’s car, thank you said Jane, Jane fitted a hosepipe to the exhaust of Jane’s car and ended her dreadful life in the tyrannical kingdom of high-frequency words). “I don’t think you’re trying at all,” I hissed at the girl, supportively.
Later, I trilled to my partner about how I just didn’t understand, because I’d been a natural reader and never really had to try. (Whatever face you’re pulling now is probably the one he did when I actually said this nonsense.)
That’s it! I quit
Finally came the first big rejection, when a much-wanted, hard-fought-for place in some football trials couldn’t be converted into a place in the squad for the boy. We broke the news gently. We impressed on him what an achievement it was even to have made it into consideration. He made heart-aching self-reproaches and threats to quit playing for ever. So we said, “What matters is that you tried your best, and even if it wasn’t perfect this time, you can use what you learned in other trials.”
This kind of stoicism doesn’t come easily to me – I have to learn to embrace my lack of stoicism stoically. I’m not an effortlessly brilliant parent, but I’m a better one for realising that and trying to be better.