I don’t know about you, but even on the best days I feel that my mothering isn’t really up to scratch. There will have been times when I’ve raised my voice, or rushed through story-time or given up trying to get my youngest to eat his greens.
Nobody tells you this when you’re pregnant and fantasising about all the happy, meadow-skipping sunny days that lay ahead. They don’t mention the days when you fail to finish a single cup of tea, or the moments when your lovely little daughter will yell at you because you’re trying to get them to have a bath. No-one warned me that if I confiscated my six-year-old’s doll she’d write me a hate letter, with a picture of me laughing by her grave (but maybe that’s not a universal experience)?!
Nobody tells you that some days – with frank, innocent honesty – you will be told that you have a moustache, or that you should buy some of the wrinkle cream your kid has seen advertised on TV. They don’t mention that your child will want to know exactly when you are going to die, then seem completely fine about it.
But today, I realised that in one category at least, I’ve nailed it. It’s a small victory in a flood of failures, but it ought to be marked.
When I was a kid, I was ridiculously secretive. I kept my worries – and victories – to myself. I didn’t tell my parents I was in the nativity play at school, I didn’t even tell my mum when I started my period. I just bought some sanitary towels and got on with it.
This tendency towards secrecy also meant that when I struggled – first with anorexia and then with anxiety – it took many wasted years to admit to myself or anyone else that I needed help. I look back on those years and wonder why I felt I had to struggle on alone.
The truth about my mental health kind of exploded out of me aged 24 when I had a near-breakdown. The only way to recover was to open up. And I’ve since realised that keeping things to yourself, trying to struggle on alone is not the way to deal with life. If anything now, I’m a warts-and-all over-sharer. But trust me, life is less complicated that way.
My experience means that one thing I’m determined to do is encourage open conversation with my own children; to have no topic off limits and be willing to answer any question honestly. Just in case my little ones have inherited my tendency towards secrecy.
And guess what? It seems to be working.
Because not only has my daughter just confided in me about a problem she’s having with her friend, but she listened to my advice. AND acted on it.
Okay, it wasn’t much – a series of messages from a friend that had erred on the mean side. But the fact that she came straight to me to tell me rather than trying to deal with it alone or worrying herself into a state meant that my plan is working (cue evil plan laugh).
It meant that she could benefit from my years of mistakes and experience when it comes to dealing with friendship problems instead of making the situation worse, or becoming too worried.
Encouraging complete openness isn’t easy. It means that I always try to answer her questions without rolling out a trusted lie. I’ve had to tell her that Santa and the tooth fairy don’t exist (because she asked directly). I’ve told her that some people believe in heaven, but I’m not sure what I think happens when we die. And I’ve had to answer many an awkward question about boobies and willies and pubic hair and reproduction.
But I hope this also means that if she sees anything she shouldn’t, or someone says something they oughtn’t; that if she, like I did at her age, starts to hate her body and believe that she’s fat, I am the person she will come to to talk about it.
Our children are being unleashed into a world that we can’t really imagine. We can try to protect them from what they might see online, try to limit their screen time. We can give them advice about what sort of behaviour is not OK, and we can hope that they take it on board.
But the biggest gift we can give them is the confidence that they can tell us anything and we will help them and advise them without judgement.
Sure, she ate chocolate for breakfast this morning – but I’m still chalking today up as a win.
‘Everything is Fine’ by Gillian Harvey is out on 28 May and can be pre-ordered here