How to Fail at Parenting – a Hashtagged Crash Course

Facebook very helpfully reminded me today that exactly one year ago I wrote a post on my (now defunct) MBA blog about failing at parenting. I went back and read it..and yep, I still feel pretty much exactly the same. I thought you might want to be reminded how to fail as a parent too – so here it is again, slightly edited. And here’s an audio version for those on the run (8 minutes, but no hashtags):

Failure is really trendy these days, to such an extent that “heroic failure” or “best new mistake” awards are now a thing. Sadly, they’re still not handing out these awards for my personal speciality – parenting failure. Thing is, failing at parenting is at the same time socially unacceptable, personally crushing and impossible to avoid because, as we all know, almost anything you do is a parenting failure according to one theory or another. It’s a killer combo. And, if you’re really honest with yourself (I won’t tell anyone, relax), there are times when you will find yourself doing at least one thing every day that is a parenting failure according to all theories.

Much like my son’s first weeks of school, for example. I never did get the hang of hashtags (hope the habit becomes obsolete soon so I can be spared figuring it out), but these have been weeks destined to be hashtagged – if we see hashtagging as the cries of my inner parenting gremlins making sure no shade of guilt was left unexplored, which I believe is the generally accepted use, right?

First there was my son’s first ever note from a teacher. His art teacher. It did not say “Your son makes wonderful use of colour and he will be the next Miro”. It said, in capitals, “PLEASE BRING WATERCOLOURS!”. Shoot shoot shoot. Yes, they did mention watercolours at that parent teacher meeting, which would have helped if I hadn’t forgotten that they said it, or the fact that the kid even has art classes on Tuesday (although saying I’d forgotten that he has art classes on Tuesdays would imply that I ever knew it, which would imply that by this point I had even checked his schedule, which would sadly be incorrect). Bizarrely, no other parents seem to have had the same problem – or so my son says. #parentingfail #poorkid #theymustthinkweretheworst #nowonderhehatesart #itsallyourfault.

The next day, my son’s long-suffering chess tutor quit (The kid loves chess for some reason. If he didn’t make a habit of forgetting to put his socks on in the morning, I’d wonder if he was really mine). So the guy quit. By email. Turns out I had (and not for the first time, I must confess) failed to ensure that my son was aware of, and prepared for, his weekly chess lesson. And what was I doing when I received that fateful email? Well, I was at a friend’s house, learning to meditate (is this a good time to blame Pema Chödrön?) The email was short and the tone restrained, but it was drafted with a keen awareness of how to push those mum guilt buttons (or maybe those guilt buttons are so sensitive that anything will push them, the jury’s still out). It mentioned that the teacher simply could not operate under the circumstances, and wished my son every success because he really had what it takes to become a great chess player. #parentingfailbigtime #shamestorm #heloveschessandiruinedit #howcouldyounotbehome #whatiswrongwithyou?!? And yes, of course the nanny knew the time of the lesson – as did the kid – and of course I had even written it on the calendar so they don’t forget, but I still stormed out of my friend’s apartment, cried my eyes out on the way home (bad idea on a bicycle, btw), and generally felt like a sorry excuse for a human being.*

Then that was that time when I forgot to set the alarm and we got woken up by the school bus driver ringing at the door. #parentingfail #badhairdaytoo #noweveryoneknows. On the bright side, we did get two kids ready for school in under 10 minutes, that’s got to be worth something, right?

And then there was this kiddie party I went to the other day. I think kiddie parties are only marginally less stressful than conferences, and conferences (on a good day!) make me feel like a 12-year old social outcast. I swear I was doing a good job, interacting socially and being pleasant and everything, until this other mum sat down in front of me and started explaining about how she was doing so much homework with her daughters, even if the school didn’t ask for it, and they were working from three different books, and even the one who was still in kindergarten had (mum-imposed, not school-imposed) homework every day, and all that was making her so, so, so tired, but still she persevered…and I leaned over the table and, much to my horror, heard myself blurting out: “Excuse me, but…why? Why do you do that?”. Which was clearly not the response she’d been expected, because I got (a) a blank stare, (b) “We do it because we do it” and (c) the quiet certainty (hopefully) that she would never ever want to arrange a playdate with my kids. #parentingandsocialfail #footinmouthdisease #nomorepartiesforyou (which was actually comforting!) and, most frighteningly, #whatifshesright.

What. If. She’s. Right. What if I’m actually wrong not to do three hours of homework with my four-year-old every day? What if I chose the wrong parenting path? What if, despite wanting all the very best for my kids, I will fail them? Well, that’s an easy “what if”. I will fail them. We all will. Partly because nobody really knows the “right” way to parent, despite (or precisely because) of how much is written on the topic, but mostly because we’re all just human. Having kids does all sorts of things to people, but it doesn’t make them saints and it doesn’t make them perfect. Somehow, someday, in all probability fairly often, we will fail our kids. And the best we can hope for is that all of our failings will be small and forgivable – which, by the way, won’t prevent our kids from obsessing about them with their therapists 20 years from now. So the best I can hope for is that, 20 years from now, my son’s greatest trauma will be that time when he was the only kid in class who hadn’t brought watercolours. In the meantime, I will love my babies as best I can, take care of them the best way I can figure out (which will involve even more failing), and probably continue to worry my head off about them and whether I’m doing it right – something which, strangely, I never fail at. Maybe that’s a good place to start this failure embracing trend everyone’s talking about.

*For those who are now worried sick about my son’s future as a chess master – rest assured, he still plays chess, under professional supervision, two times a week. It’s fine, really.

One year later edit – Son just started second grade. I forgot to buy watercolours again. Everyone survived. He still loves chess (even went to chess summer camp!), and I’m still baffled by it. School bus driver is by now way too familiar with my loungewear range (Ok fine, they’re PJs!), but by now he’s practically family, so it’s all good.

For this year, I’ve decided my kids need more time to just chill and get fashionably bored and stuff, so after careful consideration I enrolled them in the shorter programme at school (3pm instead of 5pm). Results so far: my son decided he likes ALL after-school activities so he’s still in school until 5 pm most days. Plus, my dad (a former professional sportsman whose kids have disgraced the family by becoming either very nerdy or very geeky and doing no sports until they reached 30) has decided to go all Sporty Tiger Grandpa on my daughter, so he’s now taking her to gymnastics twice a week and swimming twice a week. She hasn’t complained yet, so let’s see how that goes. We now have only Friday afternoon left for chilling purposes, and I get to feel like a cool, laid-back parent while my kids are still doing tons of activities. Everybody wins, unless I think about it too much…Love you, Dad!

And, and, and! Brene Brown (you thought this was going to be that one post where I don’t mention her, didn’t you? No such thing…) is starting a new e-course this October called The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting. I’m booked already – turns out I need watercolours…See you there?

Oh, and we have a kiddie party this Friday – am just going to Sellotape my mouth this time.


4 thoughts on “How to Fail at Parenting – a Hashtagged Crash Course

  1. leadership2mommyship says:

    I’m glad you shared this again. This is so true. That’s wonderful your son still plays chess, and for your daughter gymnastics is great, swimming too!

    My daughter’s in gymnastics, Level 10. Do they have diving where you are? Lots of gymnast have gone on to be great divers. I say this because gymnastics is tough on the body, so I’ve vowed to tell everyone gymnast transition into diving very well. Although my daughters come too far. She’s hoping for a scholarship this year; her surgery last year put her behind.

    And just so you know, I forgot I was the carpool mom once, and it happens to the best of us. Her gym is 35 miles away, one way.😳 Luckily I had very understanding fellow carpool mom. She kept me while firing the rest. I guess failing isn’t the end of the world. And you’re right, failing does she light. It helps us grow as parents.😊


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