Perception. It’s a powerful concept, particularly for parents. Because perception has the ability to leave us feeling like absolute s**t about ourselves.
Let me explain.
The other day I was dropping off my kids at nursery.
I was dressed up in smart work wear – my best formal dress – because I was heading into the office for the first time in a while.
Make-up was on, I was wearing heels and balancing a baby on one hip, a ruck sack over each shoulder and had a toddler clinging to my leg.
I was chatting to my toddler about why mummy had to go to work. I was trying to give a very measured explanation as to why she would find the office boring. Actually I think she would bloody love it, it’s on the 22nd floor and the views are incredible, plus there’s lots of corners to hide behind and a vending machine full of chocolate and crisps. It’s like toddler heaven.
As I said a cheery farewell full of positive statements about how fun all the toys look, I bumped into a fellow mum. As I left the room and headed to drop off child number two who was squirming to escape my clutches with a headfirst dive towards the floor, the mum remarked to me: “I don’t know how you look so calm when you’re rushing to work. And where do you get the time to get ready? I can barely get one out of the door on time!”
I laughed it off at the time and then changed the subject without much thought, because to me the notion that I have it together in any way, shape or form is hilarious. But then it got me thinking. From her point of view, I seemed to have it all together. I was at the nursery doors at 8am, bang on time, with two fully dressed children.
I was ready for work, I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth and there were no obvious breakfast stains on my outfit.
But the thing is, it’s true what they say. Appearances can be deceiving. I had in fact planned and laid out every outfit the night before, even though I was dead-on-my-feet tired.
My youngest had got up at 4am and refused to go back to sleep. My eldest had followed at 6am and argued with me over every little detail from the second I opened her bedroom door. She didn’t like her socks. She hated her jumper – the same one she had been wearing regularly for weeks – and she only wanted Paw Patrol trousers – she doesn’t have any Paw Patrol trousers.
When she went to the toilet she complained when I handed her toilet roll instead of letting her get it herself. She complained when we didn’t get downstairs quickly enough. She shouted when I didn’t get her a drink straight away because I was putting her sister’s socks back on.
The complaints went on and on. And then, she asked where she was going that day. When I told her it was a nursery day, she said she wanted to stay with mummy.
When I told her I was going to work in London, she said the words she often says when I’m leaving her behind that make my heart break: “Will you come back?”
And the mum guilt hit me like a freight train. Despite explaining that of course Mummy would be coming back later, I feel awful every time she asks this. That it even enters her head that I may be gone for good. I hate the thought of her, so tiny and fragile, having this anxiety.
I had to slap my make-up on while kneeling on the floor of the lounge with one hand and attempting to use a handheld mirror propped up on the coffee table as a guide. The other hand was being used to help my youngest balance as she attempted to climb onto my shoulders.
I got dressed in the hallway because that’s where I had dumped my clothes while rushing to get everyone downstairs on time.
When we reached nursery I realised that while I had remembered my toddler’s wellies because they were on her feet, I had brought two odd shoes. Both for the same foot.
On dropping off my baby I had to explain that she hadn’t slept well and leave her there worrying she wouldn’t get decent rest when napping in a communal room. Mum guilt strikes again.
As I travelled to work I realised I had forgotten my pass to enter the office building and would have to divert to security to source a temporary one, meaning I would be late for work after all despite all of my planning.
So you see, while I may have looked like everything was going smoothly, it certainly didn’t feel that way.
And what really got me thinking was, what if this woman felt bad after our encounter? Because comparison is the absolute worst thing us mums do to ourselves.
When we compare ourselves to unrealistic visions we have of what other parents’ lives are like, we remember all the ways in which we aren’t perfect. We decide we don’t measure up because our child isn’t sleeping through the night yet or saying at least 10 words or counting to 100.
We worry that other people are managing to have it all – the career and the family – while we are just ricocheting from one disaster to the next before collapsing at the end of the day feeling amazed that everyone survived.
So if you’ve ever encountered a fellow parent at the playground, soft play or nursery and felt impressed, jealous or even a little sad because they seem to be just getting this parent gig way more than you, stop.
Here are some things of which I am certain:
There is no such thing as a perfect parent.
We all have bad days, none of us are immune to that.
Every parent has at some point questioned whether they know what the hell they’re doing.
Every parent feels a degree of guilt when leaving their baby in childcare to return to work.
No one has the work/life balance thing bang on. We are all just teetering to and fro trying to keep from falling.
Appearances can be very deceptive. One day you’ll bump into me in my best work dress, the next you’ll catch me in my pink trackies that actually look like pyjamas raiding the supermarket for a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk.
The reality of it is I’m just totally winging it every single day. Every single hour even!
Don’t let your perception of perfect parenting cloud your judgement. We’re all doing the best we can, and that’s more than enough.