You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on…
(Excerpt from Mary Oliver, Wild Geese)
You’re a parent, but you do not have to be good. I was thinking the other day what an absolute trip it is to be a woman in the world, all the thin-shaped, beautiful-shaped, soft-and-quiet-shaped boxes we’re ushered into almost from the moment we take a breath, and how much that’s sharpened and intensified once we start making other people.
Last weekend I went to meet one of my oldest friends, who had a baby earlier in the year. She has always been kind and far lovelier than I’ve ever deserved, but I know small babies: I came expecting a wild-eyed, sleep-deprived woman-ghost. I was all ready to reassure her that the first year is hard, loneliness is normal, and feeding’s not the end of the world. Instead I found her graceful and happy and giddily in love with her little girl. It made me so happy for her. But despite how much she was enjoying herself, she was still worried she wasn’t doing it right.
‘What’s right?!’ I said, gesturing with pizza on a fork. ‘I love routine, and I parent in a routine, but I do that because that’s how I function best. All of mine have been so different – you can only do it in the way that suits them and suits you. People who try to be prescriptive about babies! It’s impossible. We prescribe because it reassures us about the one weird way that works specifically for us. But you don’t have to listen. No one does’.
You do not have to be good. Or rather, you do not have to be good in whatever way we’ve currently decided parenting should be. There was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst called Dr Donald Winnicott working in the 1950s and 60s, who used to talk about the ‘good enough parent’. His idea was that you provide a nurturing environment for your child that makes them feel safe, and then, because you’re not a perfect parent but only good enough, you make mistakes. You love them, but you’re not omnipotent. Dr Winnicott thought that it was important – actually, essential – that the child realises your fallibility. It sets them up for healthy emotional relationships elsewhere. It helps them learn, from you, how to be flawed without tearing themselves or others into pieces.
I only learned about Dr Winnicott last week and I felt like reaching into the past to high-five him, because I’ve been saying this for years, even if I’ve had to write it down a lot in order to really believe it. It’s good for my children to see me mess up, have boundaries, cross my limits and regret it. It’s good for them to see me grappling with giant emotions and letting them out in ways I wish I hadn’t. And they need to see apologies, too! Someone who’s learned how to readily, sincerely apologise and then honestly try to do better is a step ahead of, like, seventy percent of the human graduating class. I apologise to them all the time, though probably not as much as I should. Sometimes I’m too angry even to want to apologise, but I know I’ll want to later, and once I want to, I will.
I tell them that, when it happens.
Why should I pretend I don’t get hurt, exhausted, sad and frustrated? I’m not an alien. And I didn’t come into being the moment I became their mother. I predate them. A lot of my stuff does. I think it’s important they know that too. Children need context, and my context is that I was a person with a history long before I was their mother.
If you are their model – and for better and worse, baby, you are – then the better and worse isn’t a flaw in the system. It’s part of the design. If you only show them calm and quiet and acquiescence, then how will they know how to handle themselves when they boil with rage or injustice or jealousy instead? There’s a kaleidoscope developing inside them. Let them lean into all the colours in there without knocking pieces out for shame. They do not have to be good, or crawl on their knees in the desert, repenting. They can thrive on good enough, and they can learn that from you.
I’m no one’s angel mother. I’m not sorry for it. I’m ready, I think, to kick over all those old, immobilising pedestals. I will love what I love, and I will just occasionally not like it much, and I’ll know that being here and broken and good enough is somehow, miraculously, exactly what they need.