There are very few ways in which I find being a parent is comparable to being a celebrity. Obviously we’re similar in that neither of us do our own makeup anymore – makeup artists do the celebrity’s makeup and no one does mine. But apart from that, the only real common ground is that we are both on show all the time. People expect us lead by example. Famous people are suddenly expected to be positive role models, and so are parents. I’m not sure I fully understood that before I had kids: that all day, every day, the equivalent of my adoring public was going to be watching my every move, observing my behaviour and, terrifyingly, learning how to be a human by copying what I do. That’s a lot of responsibility.
Current thinking on child rearing suggests that the most important thing your kids need to learn from you is resilience. Maybe third most important, actually, after not playing with electrical outlets or kissing the cat on the bottom. To raise resilient children, we’re told that we need to demonstrate a positive attitude ourselves. Apparently we’re supposed to be a bunch of cheerful Pollyannas while running on next to no sleep and fuelling ourselves with abandoned half-eaten apples and toast crusts, and doing a full-time job for which is there no training, no annual leave and no boss to hand your resignation to. No pressure, parents.
I’m not an inherently positive person. I come from a glass-is-half-full mother and a glass-is-half-empty dad. I take after my dad, and over the years have developed into what you might call a ‘I’m sure my glass was fuller than that. Who’s been drinking from my glass. WHAT HAPPENED TO MY GIN AND TONIC?’ type of person. I’m equal parts worried and suspicious, I’m terrified of failure and I think risk-taking is for the birds. These qualities are exactly what I don’t wish for my kids. It’s awful when you can’t take a compliment without reading the worst into it. Take the other day, for example, when my two-year-old son told me I laugh like a horse. My eyes pricked with tears, until I realised he was saying it with admiration. He adores horses. What could be better than a mother who sounds like one?
I want my children to grow up to be fearless and bold and care nothing for what others think of them. To assume the best. I want them to see the beauty in the world, to live each day to the fullest. In order to do that, I’ve realised, I’ve got to start living like one of those positive affirmations you see all over Pinterest that use too many fonts. I’ve got to Be The Change I Want To See In Others. I must Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.
So I try to set a good example. I teach my kids to reply to compliment with gracious thanks. When my daughter complains about her friends being mean to her, I ask her to look for another kid who looks like they could use a friend, and play with them instead. I sing songs to my kids, and we read books and play when I would much rather let them watch TV for hours.
But feeling all that positivity will cripple you eventually. No one can keep that up. Life isn’t all good, and that’s an important thing for kids to learn too. I suffered from postnatal depression after the births of both my children. It was treated with a combination of therapy and medication, both of which continue to this day. Two and a half years after my son’s birth, the depression is mostly gone, but sometimes I can feel echoes of it creeping back. The triggers for me are illness and fatigue, which, hilariously, are in plentiful supply when you live with two under-five-year-olds with apparent phobias of sleeping alone, dubious personal hygiene practices and a squadron of pestilent little mates.
When I’m sick, my tolerance for the ordinary shenanigans of children plummets, and the slightest hint of misbehaviour turns me into a ranting harpy. Splashing water out of the bath, being slow to put on pyjamas, jumping on the bed – all these minor infractions become offences that I can only be dealt with by shouting, or crying, or locking myself in my room and leaving the kids to my husband to deal with. After the rage come the guilt and the numbness and the sadness. And the shame. Oh the shame. That my children should be experiencing this. I am horrified they have witnessed such a negative version of me, where all the parts that should be light are dark, and I turn from their loving mother into an unrecognizable monster. These are the memories I am building of their childhood. I don’t want them to think back and describe my parenting as primarily driven by the phrase ‘…or I will throw that toy in the bin’. At times like this I want to give up. I want to lie down and never get up again.
When you are a parent, though, you have to get back up. The guilt and shame can’t win. You can’t play dead, because like cats with a corpse your kids will just chew on your knees until you scrape yourself off the rug and refill their bowl of frozen peas or put in another DVD or whatever their current pressing need is.
Once you’re up again, and you’ve apologised, you realise that they don’t care that much. A bit of maternal shouting rolls off their backs like juice off a Stainmaster carpet. The negative version of me that I think they saw isn’t really what they saw at all. I was not a monster. I know this because what I am seeing reflected back in them is beautiful. They are actually pretty resilient and don’t seem to have been completely ruined by my occasional fury. They are still seeing the positive in the world, in places where I see only evidence of my flaws and failings.
Never was this clearer than a recent morning when, after a terrible night of bed-hopping and resettling and tears, I flopped down on the sofa and a huge cloud of dust arose from the upholstery. ‘I haven’t vacuumed in forever,’ I thought. ‘This place is awful. It’s probably not safe to live here. Seriously, how hard is it to vacuum. Other people do it. Why can’t I keep on top of this stuff?’ My mood began to spiral down.
The house was filthy. I felt so guilty and ashamed.
The thin winter sunlight was streaming through the window, as best it could given the jammy smears on the glass. Dust floated slowly to the ground. Things were looking pretty damn Dickensian. I looked up to see my four-year-old daughter captivated by the dust motes dancing in the sunbeams, joyously trying to catch them in her mouth. She looked like a child catching snowflakes in an advertisement for life insurance. ‘Mummy!’ she told me with delight, ‘this tastes like an attic!’
It’s going to take a lot more than some shouting to bring down that kid, I thought. That’s one hell of a positive attitude right there. I threw back my head and laughed like a horse.