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Why you will fail at parenting

Inspired by Alain de Botton’s essay “Why you will marry the wrong person

It’s one of the things we are most afraid might happen. We go to great lengths to avoid it. We read all the books, trawl the parenting websites, ask advice on carseats, strollers and breastpumps. Sit through ante-natal classes, lectures from public health nurses and podcasts from celebrity parents to glean what advice and inspiration we can.

And yet we do it all the same. We fail. Multiple times before breakfast, we do so many things wrong. We are not destined it seems to meet our own goals and standards.

Partly, we feel this way because becoming a parent shines a bright light on all the unresolved problems we have in our lives. Prone to anxiety or stress? Try taking an infant home from the hospital who seems to not have read any of the baby books.

In the habit of growling at your partner before your first coffee of the morning? Have weeks of sleep deprivation combined with the isolation of being a new mum and discover a myriad of new ways your partner drives you crazy.

Guilty of comparing yourself unfavourably to others? Say hello to an infinite number of ways you can feel judged as a parent – from the “must have” items you buy or don’t buy before baby arrives to whether you formula feed or breastfeed, and whether baby sleeps in their own room or (heaven forbid) “manipulates you” into a permanent spot in your bed.

Maybe we believe we can fix any issues or disappointments from our own childhood through our parenting. We can absolutely applaud the person with a history of neglect or abuse for the warm and safe home they create for their child. But taken to the extreme, we may believe we can eliminate any difficulty or struggle for our child, if only we adopt the right parenting style, choose the right childcare option, school, tone of voice when dealing with conflict, the right diet, amount of screen time, the magic bedtime routines etc.

Sounds like a lot? It’s because it is. Even if we could identify an objective ‘right’ (and this is a very big IF), it’s too much for any one (or two) people to get right.

Good enough

So are you failing to meet all the expectations you had? Probably.

Are you less than perfect as a parent? Absolutely.

Are you good enough? Definitely.

Again back to the 1940s, the “good enough mother” was a concept popularised by Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician and psychoanalyst (the same concept applies to Dads, by the way, it’s just that in Winnicott’s time, the child rearing was mostly left to the mothers). Winnicott studied the interactions between mothers and children and found that most mothers did just fine in attunement to their infants- and that it did not take extraordinary talent to be a ‘good enough mother’.

Discovering our instinct

We make mistakes because we do not know what it is to parent this child. Nobody can fully know the work of being a parent before the first night they are left alone, helpless to comfort a baby, both parent and infant equally lost and at sea in this strange new world.

Winnicott said

“It is when a mother trusts her judgment that she is at her best,”

This doesn’t mean we must abandon all efforts towards giving our children a good life, only the idea that we can become a perfect being who can meet all our child’s needs and satisfy their every yearning. Even if this was a healthy long-term approach for your child (spoiler- it), what is the long-term cost to you of such an approach?

We open the door to love and joy and something else…

We have children for many reasons. .. because it happens. We plan families because we believe we should, because our hormones and animal nature drives us towards it, because it’s the next thing to do, or because we imagine it opens a door to joy and love (it does, but it also opens a door to darker part of ourselves too.)

In the words of the writer Ann Lamott in her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year

"One of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one's secret insanity and brokenness and rage."

Indeed, becoming parents may make people less happy (although in countries where parents are supported with high quality childcare at a reasonable price, this is less likely to be the case.). Being a parent means that we have less time for us, for partners, friends, more guilt about the ascent up the career ladder, less money.

You’re supposed to fail

The good news us that it doesn’t matter if you are failing. You are supposed to fail, according to Winnicott:

"A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother .. starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities."

This doesn’t mean we must abandon all efforts towards giving our children a good life, only the idea that we can become a perfect being who can meet all our child’s needs and satisfy their every yearning. Even if this was a healthy long-term approach for your child (spoiler- it's not), what is the long-term cost to you of such an approach?

We need to swap the idealised notion of parenting, especially motherhood, as something we can do right, and that only offers bliss and love, for a tragic awareness of the complexity of life. Even before your children are teenagers, they will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint you (and you will, without any malice) do the same to them.

This philosophy offers a solution to a lot of distress and agitation around the work of raising children. A real commitment to “good enough” relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our culture places upon mothering/parenting.

Embrace imperfection

The culture of quick fix parenting hacks been unhelpful to us. It has made a lot of what we go through in our day to day seem unacceptable and appalling. Baby won’t sleep in their cot? Your routine is off. Toddler still in nappies? You haven’t tried hard enough with potty training. The books of parenting advice offer that every stage and difficulty has a solution, if only you are looking hard enough.

We end up lonely and convinced that our situation with its imperfections is not “normal”.

Rather than some notion of perfect harmony and balance, it is the capacity to embrace imperfection with kindness that is the true marker of the great parent.

Embracing imperfection in oneself, in one’s children, partners and others.

It’s learning to accommodate ourselves to “getting it wrong, and getting up again”, striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on ourselves, our partners and our children.


One way I've found helpful to develop this kindly perspective and embracing imperfection, is through meditation practice. Check out my free 5 day meditation course here.

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