I wrote an article for Real Parenting recently. I don’t usually put my articles on the blog, preferring to keep it a seperate space from other writing I do, but this piece was a personal one.
You see, I was admitting to something I haven’t ever admitted to before.
I thought it may touch a chord with other new parents, so I’ve decided to post it here too. I’m hoping other people will ‘fess up to make me feel better. So read on and tell me – are you a self-conscious parent?
As parents we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get things right. Too often we worry that others are judging our parenting skills, and sadly sometimes they are. Molly Forbes tells us how one throwaway comment from a stranger made her an overly self-conscious parent.
I’ll never forget my first trip to the supermarket with my daughter. It was terrifying and incredibly stressful. Not least because I ended up carrying her (she hated to be put down as a newborn) while I tried to lug around my carrots and nappies in a heavy basket, but also because she didn’t stop crying.
The whimpers started in the vegetable aisle and continued through the meat section, so that by the time I’d eventually struggled to the checkout we were in full-blown screaming mode. It was horrendous. And to make matters worse, I was told off by the woman behind the till. “Your baby’s hungry”, she said, as if I wasn’t keenly aware of that fact. I felt like a terrible mother.
And from that day on, I have been a self-conscious parent. If my baby cries at baby and toddler group, I panic, thinking I’ll be judged as an incompetent mum. If we’re out for lunch at a restaurant and my baby-led weaned baby makes a mess, I worry that people will wonder why I’m not spoon-feeding her. Will they think I don’t know what I’m doing? Everyone else always seems so “in control” – what if they think I’m not up to the job?
Turns out I’m not alone. When I confessed to my friend that I sometimes felt I was being “watched” in my new role as a mum, to see how I was coping, she admitted she felt the same. Caroline is one of the most confident mums I know, so it came as a surprise to find out she didn’t always feel that way.
“I like to sit back and watch my 3 year old explore”, said Caroline. “But I think I often let him do things other parents may disapprove of, like peering into the water in a canal to look at his reflection. He leans right over the side, but I know he won’t jump or fall in, because I trust him to know his boundaries and what’s safe. I know this may be an unconventional approach to some parents.”
Caroline admitted this approach can sometimes make her feel like the odd one out amongst her friends who are parents, “This means I’m always worrying that other people may think I’m a bad mother, because I let my son do things they may not let their child do.”
For Caroline, these crises of confidence have got worse as her son’s grown older. “I think I was more confident when he was a baby. Now that he’s growing up and wanting to explore his world more I find there are bigger differences in the choices I make as a parent to that of some of my friends. This makes me really self-conscious at times. I know a lot of this is probably my own perception, but the odd comment from other people doesn’t always help.”
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Parenting Expert, Claire Halsey, says it’s actually pretty normal to feel self-conscious as a parent, “There can be a real sense of being judged even though it is highly likely that you’re not. Being offered well-meaning advice can be seen as suggesting you’re failing when actually it’s usually supposed to be a helping hand.”
Claire puts much of this down to the high expectations many parents place on themselves, “Parents do place a lot of pressure on themselves to be the parent they see in the adverts or soft focus magazine shoots looking dotingly at their baby. When ‘real life’ is a mix of sleeplessness and worry about topics from when to wean to where to get good child care, so it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing too well. In fact this is all entirely normal.”
So when does the self-consciousness and lack of confidence stray from the realms of “normal” to “problem”? “While it’s entirely normal to struggle at first with a new baby, it’s time to seek advice if you’re feeling in a low mood for more than a few weeks after the birth,” recommends Claire. “It is always wise to seek advice and support, no matter whether the difficulty is large or small.”
As a new mum, I’m aware that a lot of my feelings of self-consciousness were completely normal. I was getting used to a huge new responsibility, juggling breastfeeding with sleep deprivation and a new role at home. But instead of being honest with other friends who had babies, I was eager to appear that I was taking it all in my stride. This meant when conversations about sleep patterns or development came up, I’d often find myself telling white lies, to “keep up” with the other mums. I didn’t want to be the one to be left behind.
Looking back, I wish I’d just been honest. If I’d have admitted my daughter wasn’t a brilliant sleeper, maybe those mums who claimed their newborn was sleeping through the night would have come clean about the odd white lie too. According to Claire, honesty is the best policy when it comes to parenting, “While it can appear every other parent has everything under control, underneath they are probably just as uncertain and lacking in sleep as you are. It’s definitely most helpful to let on if you’re unsure of how to handle some parenting situations, as your health visitor or friends with babies are your best options for reassurance or new ideas. “
Luckily for me, trips to the supermarket no longer bring me out in a cold sweat. That could be partly because I’ve never ventured back to the shop where I was “told off”, but also because I now know all the other parents there are probably too busy trying to keep their own children happy to notice my daughter throwing a tantrum at the deli counter. And if I get an attack of self-consciousness, I’ll just have to remember it’s probably in my head. Afterall, I’ve got through the first 14 months of being a mum just fine, so I must be doing something right.