According to conventional wisdom, the most rewarding thing you can do in life is become a parent—or, more accurately, become a mother, because we all know motherhood is true parenting. It’s almost ten years since I became a mother, and while I love my kids, I don’t love parenting, and I know I’m not alone. It’s time more of us talked about it.
I know some people are wondering now how it’s possible to love your children and not love parenting. Surely loving your children is parenting, right? Aaah, no. Not even close. In fact, you can parent without loving your children at all (although it’s unlikely you’ll be any good at it), and you can love your children more than life itself and not parent one little bit. Primary parenting (usually done by the feminine partner, still) is hard, draining, and—especially when you have small children—incredibly boring. It’s repetitive, frustrating, and most days it feels like banging your head against a brick wall. Primary parenting is cleaning up the same mess three times in an hour, cooking the same meal twice a week because it’s the only thing they’ll eat, having the same conversation over and over again, finding half-drunk cups of tea all over the house because you had to go stop someone drawing on the wall halfway through drinking it. And as they grow up it’s mostly worry—not just about what they’re up to, but if you’re doing the right thing, if you’re teaching them what they need to know, if you’re helping them become a good person, a happy person, a whole person. This is doubly hard if you have a child who’s LGBT+, or who has a neurodivergence like autism, or a disability, because you know they’re facing barriers that other children don’t and there’s nothing you can do to protect them from that—and that hurts.
Of course, that’s not all parenting is. There are cuddles and babies falling asleep on you (gah, so cute!), and a toddler who can hardly speak telling you a story about a woof dog and a moo sheep (toddler, remember), and your nine-year-old who won’t hug you in front of your friends leaning on you while you’re trying to write and telling you about their day because they actually do love their parent, they’re just too cool to show it in public. And all of that stuff is great. But parenting, on the whole, is not fun, and a lot of us don’t enjoy it. And that’s okay.
I know hardly anyone who loves parenting—or, more accurately, primary parenting—in the way we’re told we should. We’re taught that this should be the most rewarding, fulfilling venture we’ve ever undertaken. We’re told to “enjoy it while it lasts”, while inside we’re screaming that we’d just like them to grow up already so we can be free! We miss having our own lives, being able to put ourselves first just some of the time, because having children means their needs will always come first—they’re children, and they can’t advocate for themselves, so the task always falls on us. Primary parents and “potential mothers” (because above all else, that’s how uterus-owners and femme people are still seen) are taught that this is the true purpose of our lives, and that desiring anything more than primary parenthood is selfish and somehow wrong. And yet most of us have many other things in our lives that are important to us, sometimes more important than the job of raising a miniature human. Our jobs, our hobbies, our friends, our pets—all of these things can be more important than potential parenthood—or actual parenthood. That’s not selfish, that’s just having different priorities. If you would rather stick needles in your eyes than have a child, that’s okay. Some people would rather work forever and be comfortable with their cat. And that’s okay.
But what about those of us who already are parents, and have discovered the truth that nobody told us—that primary parenting most isn’t playing nice games, or reading to our kids, or any of those fun parts, but is 80% hard, boring work, that nobody really values, that everyone is ready to criticise you for, that isn’t paid at all, and is not really our cup of tea? What do we do?
The first thing to remember is that you can be a good parent without loving parenting. Everyone has a part of their job that they don’t like (and if you don’t, how dare you, you unnatural human!). That doesn’t mean you can’t do that job well. (And yes, parenting is a job.) Whether it’s discipline, whether it’s the constant meal prep and housework bullshit (uuuuugh), whether it’s tolerating the same story over and over again without losing your goddamn mind, you can do it. And you can also remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect. The best parenting advice I ever got was from my counsellor, who reminded me that I don’t have to be the perfect parent, I just have to be “good enough”. Nobody can get it right 100% of the time, not even the most enthusiastic parent. We have to concentrate on doing our best for our children and ourselves with the tools that we have.
Be gentle with yourself. Realise that you can help break the parenting myth by being more than a parent. Study, work, have your hobbies. Make sure your kids are doing well while you do these things, but it’s actually good for your kids to see you as a whole person, with a life outside of them. You don’t have to be “just Mum”. You can have a life and be a parent—and be a good parent, too! Finding a balance is never easy, but it is possible.
And let go of “Mummy guilt”. You don’t have to be all and everything for everyone, not even your children. You can still be a whole, human person and a parent. Don’t feel guilty for longing for the day when they move out. Don’t feel guilty for zoning out halfway through that twenty minute recitation of every event in their school day. Don’t feel guilty for muttering swears under your breath at your turd of a child as they stomp away from you and slam the door because you dared to ask them to take out the garbage. You are not alone. You are not wrong. You are not broken. Parenting is hard, and you don’t have to love it.
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Text: All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017