There was a day several years ago – just after I had been bullied out of a management position and was obviously feeling a tad unbalanced – when with grim determination I set out to create a perfect parenting day, well, it was actually only going to be an evening, but I would settle for that.
I had a precious, half-formed childhood memory of my parents one day giving me new pajamas. I remember it more poignantly than any Christmas.
We were always poor, so owning new, soft flannelette PJs that matched was a shining moment in my childhood.
And I was setting out to re-create that feeling, only better.
We went shopping, me with a credit card grimly in hand – it didn’t matter what it cost, this retail therapy was going to happen, nobody was getting in my way.
It was already 4pm and the shops wanted to close, the day was dark and cold and wanted to squeeze us out of the daylight and into an early night, but I fought against the dying of the light.
I started at the pajama section and bought matching flannelette sets for each of the four kids – good ones, not the cheap, generic kind.
Then I bought them all slippers to match their PJs.
With the family traipsing behind, all a bit in awe of my mission, I next chose matching fluffy, warm dressing gowns that would protect and warm my children.
Then we went to the linen department and I grabbed at doona covers and coordinating flannelette sheets for each child, Thomas and Fireman Sam, for the little boys, Winnie the Pooh for Ruby (she wouldn’t let me buy the fairy design) and plain bold colours for Harley who didn’t want anything too childish.
But I wasn’t done yet. I still wanted warm blankets to throw over their warm doonas, warm sheets and warm PJs. I didn’t want to take any risks that a draft might touch them – I wanted them wrapped W A R M and safe, safe, safe from the fear that was stalking me.
The fear that I hadn’t done enough; didn’t do enough, just wasn’t enough as a mother or a person.
I bought polar fleece blankets to ice the cakes of their dreams – ironically now I realise they were all either purple or red – my two favourite colours – the colours that can make me feel empowered and successful.
That night they slept in their rigorously made beds, in their perfect PJs, they wore their slippers and dressing gowns for five minutes and I felt like I had control of things, that I had for the first time ever, secured control of this mothering lark, had life just as it was meant to be, and even if I never got there again I would always have this glittering day to remember.
Of course the slippers were never worn again and ended up going, pristine, to the op shop six months later, the dressing gowns were likewise redundant in our cosy house, but the bedding and PJs lived on to give me a thrill whenever any of it matched. And to batter me with a sharp sense of failure when it didn’t.
When I look back at this I can see how unhinged and unhappy I was, and how hard I was being on myself. I know that kids don’t feel loved and valued because of what we buy them; but that day I needed to provide myself with evidence that I was doing ok as a mother.
It’s taken a lot of work and therapy to process these issues, but I think most women feel this pressure to some extent, and the sting of failure when their children don’t have childhoods that look like a glossy magazine shoot.
There is so much pressure to give children some romanticised notion of childhood; with magical birthday parties, a host of enriching extra-curricular activities, a diet rich in Super Foods and parents who are always in control, never get tired and never make mistakes.
I’m not sure when childhood went from the extreme of being an austere time when kids were seen and not heard, hidden away in nurseries or left to their own devices to play with mud and sticks then rushed into adult roles of work and marriage as soon as puberty hit – to now when we coddle and baby them late into their 20s and over think every detail of their upbringing.
Wouldn’t it be good if we could somehow find a middle ground – or better yet, direct some of our attention to the hundreds of thousands of Australian children for whom a safe home, clean clothes and regular meals would be a gift, or to the billions of children world wide who won’t live past infancy due to disease and poverty.