Whatever the stage of parenting one is at, there is a plethora of (often conflicting) advice out there about how best to go about it. The maxim goes that we write about what troubles us: if this is the case, then clearly parenting is something that bothers a lot of us.
Becoming responsible for a child the first time is an experience of dizzying proportions. For mothers, fathers, and caregivers, adapting to being responsible for one’s own body to suddenly coordinating the care of two bodies requires a complex array of physical and psychological alterations. The labour involved in coming to terms with this change is immense, and is made more complicated by the way we have to adapt ourselves as parents to the realities of the child we are looking after; children invariably develop into different people to what we expect them to be, and adjusting for this difference between ideal and reality is not necessarily straightforward or easy.
Becoming a parent can be a time of exploration, providing caregivers with an opportunity to play creatively in a way that they might have forgotten or lost touch with as they got older. But it can also be a very challenging process because of the way parenting tends to stir up our own unresolved feelings and tensions from childhood. This can happen at any stage, and can be particularly confusing if, for example, early stages of parenting have gone relatively smoothly, but then become much more tense in later stages. Parenthood then becomes a tricky process of working out what belong to the child, and what belongs to the parent’s own past.
Another source of tension in the transition to parenthood is the inevitable different perspectives on what it means to ‘parent well’ between caregivers. We all have some ideas about what it means to be a good parent—a view influenced by what we feel was done well, or not done well, by our own parents. If these differences are large, and are not talked about and worked through in some way between caregivers, the dissimilar approaches in parenting can create significant tension within a family unit.
Transitioning in parenthood is not something that is restricted to the early phases. Because children are constantly developing, their needs and desires are also in a state of flux. Being a parent is therefore a process of continually being in a state of transition. The skills of being a parent to an infant or toddler are different those required when parenting an adolescent. Parenting is in some ways a constant lesson in letting go of the old, in order to understand the new—a rich learning process but one that requires a lot of energy and resource and where fallibility is inevitable.
Given the inevitability of failing at the task of parenting, at least in some measure, it can be helpful to be reminded of the conclusion reached by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott after observing hundreds of mother-infant pairs. He noted that failing in some moderated degree (i.e. not in ways that are not too traumatic for the child) is an important part of parenting and that children can benefit from this, as it allows them space to develop their own sense of identity and resilience. The aim for parenting, therefore, is not perfection, but striving for being ‘good enough’ (Winnicott, 1953).