EVERY SO OFTEN, when I’m feeling a little down, I let my mind wander back to the moment my daughter emerged messy and screaming (not really kicking to be honest) from my wife’s C-section and we locked eyes on each other for the first time.
In that moment, like all dads, I felt a blast of optimism about the state of the planet, accompanied by a feeling that there was nothing I wouldn’t do for this precious creature. It’s good to recall that moment, because five years later, I often feel like I am, indeed, doing nothing for her. Well, nothing great, anyway. Nothing terrible, either. Just a lot of mediocrity.
This is, of course, a common feeling among parents. I have read a lot about ‘mother’s guilt’. It’s a thing. Dads, as I can attest, can feel it too, and sometimes, in periods where I’m on the precipice of neurotic introspective implosion, I worry I’m not feeling guilty enough about my sustained run of distinctly average parenting.
Mediocrity comes in many forms. It’s not, as you might imagine, built purely on neglect or a result of being busy. For the more neurotically minded person, it can often stem from your conscientiousness. My main issue at the moment, because parenting is a series of rolling issues, is that I’m actually doing too much for my daughter, which I fear is hampering her development.
I help get her dressed in the morning, even though she can do it herself now, because I know if I wait for her to do it, we’ll never get out the door. I put on her shoes because I can hardly bear to watch her fuck it up. I clean up after she has Lego-bombed the lounge room because I’ve asked her five times and it’s still a minefield of sharply pointed polygons. I jump in and say the word she is stuttering over as we read her home readers before bed. I get up and down throughout the day to get her milk or a muesli bar—the milk is a pre-emptive sanity preservation measure; if I let her try to pour a 2L bottle of milk into a cup there will be tears…mine. And I hover under her at playground climbing frames in case she might fall, while I watch other parents yak away or look at their phones, confident their child will be alright. And you know what? Their child is alright and is now a better climber than mine because that kid had to figure out how to climb to the next point in the rope pyramid themselves, instead of being coached by an overzealous Ted Lasso at the bottom.
Of course, I know this sounds like I’m simply the modern, stock standard, overly protective helicopter parent. I am and I fear this kind of coddling could mean I’m robbing my daughter of opportunities to do things for herself, mess them up and then try again, thus taking away the confidence and self-belief this process engenders. In doing so, I fear I am setting her up for mediocrity.
Of course, to be fair to myself, I’m also pretty adept at benign neglect as well. I let her watch You-Tube, You-fucking-Tube (I’m swearing more than normal, not only for emphasis or because it’s fun to swear in a parenting article but because it’s something I usually have to keep a lid on because, well, I’m a parent) because I need five minutes to take a phone call. I buy her ice-creams and lollipops when she whines. I buy her toys in K-Mart when we’re supposed to be looking for light-bulbs. And I’ve started phubbing her, something I swore I would never do, far more often than I should. She has proceeded to shout at me to get my attention. It works.
In such moments, it makes me think about my own dad and the way he parented my brother and I; completely hands off, utterly mediocre. As my daughter is an only child, I also think back to the one only child in my neighbourhood when I was growing up, Rodney, and how the rest of us who had siblings thought he was spoiled rotten—dude literally had brown front teeth from too many chocolate Paddle Pops. And then I think I’m creating another Rodney, when I swore (parents swear a lot, both solemnly and coarsely) I wouldn’t let that happen.
Of course, there’s no school to learn how to be a dad. Just stacks of didactic parenting books that tell you how to empower your kids with tips such as ‘put a side plate of vegetables next to your fussy eater’s main plate so that they might be tempted to try them’. Let me tell you, that side plate just sits there, like figs on a fruit platter.
And then I think, it was never supposed to be like this. Back in that operating room when I first gazed at her, I believed I could manage to walk the line between protectiveness and empowerment. That I’d be disciplined about screen time, vigilant about fruit and vegetable intake, that I’d let her make mistakes and learn from them and generally care for her without cosseting her.
And then I think what a naive sap I was, and we all probably are in those first precious moments. Because, of course, nurturing a life is a part of life, which means it’s inherently messy, destined for soaring highs and crushing lows, caring too much about some things, not enough about others. And that all adds up to an inevitably mediocre median.
But that doesn’t really matter because other parents are making their own mistakes, and having their own little successes, as they rear their own gloriously flawed fuck-ups. And if you are fortunate enough to bear witness to another kid’s tantrum, you and your partner will smugly glance at each other, as if to say, ‘our daughter would never do that’. And she might not. But she will do something else equally objectionable.
And so, you cut yourself a break, maybe even give yourself a pat on the back. And then you feel guilty about doing that and on it goes. But then you think back to your old man’s occasionally inspired, frequently hapless attempts to raise you, and you smile. Because you appreciate that mediocrity is something you can’t help but pass down.