Yesterday morning, I was feeling pretty stressed out. The house was a mess, there was juice all over the 5 year old’s homework, and by 0830 there had already been a few tantrums. To put the icing on the cake, I’d totally forgotten that I’d invited Mary Poppins over for coffee after the school run.
I rushed the kids to school, rushed back, and I was just plugging the hoover in when I heard the wind change. Resigned to the fact that Mary was going to see me in all my failing-parenting glory, I opened the door in time to see her flying in on a north-north westerly. She landed in her usual chipper fashion. I looked at her from behind my margarine smeared glasses. Her peachy complexion and sparkly eyes served only to heighten my general feeling of down-and-dowdiness.
I sighed and popped the kettle on. Mary, after finding a chair not covered in porridge, sat down and looked at me in a pointed way. Without her saying a word, I could tell she knew something was wrong, so I advised her that with her having no children of her own, living on a cloud, and being a made-up fictional character, she couldn’t possible understand.
“Try me.”, said Mary.
It took me a couple of seconds to decide that even Perfect Poppins couldn’t make me feel much worse, so what the hell. With that I regaled to Mary my woes that no matter how hard I tried, I never felt I was doing anything well enough. I could always do better and, given that my kids deserve the best, that left a bitter taste in my mouth.
“Go on then”, challenged Mary, “what does this practically perfect parent look like?”
Some images of the perfect parent floated around my mind. These women (and they did always seem to be women) tended to be dressed in Boden, while picnicking in the sunshine on home-cooked goodies. I reeled off what I felt the perfect parent probably does: has an enjoyable vaginal delivery; has kids once they are old enough to be financially independent; looks young enough to have had the kids when they were 15; enjoys crafts, baking and growing their own; lives in a house that looks like no craft materials, baking ingredients or gardening implements ever cross the threshold; and never ever feeds the children anything containing refined sugar.
“Not even a spoonful?”
“Don’t even go there.” I said.
“Where are the kids in all of this perfection?”, Mary enquired.
“I am not sure. But I am pretty confident that they are not covered in jam, sat on the sofa, watching Toy Story for the 500th time.”
Mary pulled a bit of paper out of her pocket. It looked to have been torn up, thrown on the fire, and then carefully stuck together again. It had been written on, and the writing was clearly that of a child.
“This”, said Mary, “Is what kids want”.
I stared at her, incredulously.
“I know, I know”, she said, ” ‘never be cross’, ‘don’t have warts’. But keep in mind they are talking about the paid staff. The rest of it, though, pretty good, eh?”
“Mary, being cross and having warts are the least of my worries. Seriously, my having rosy cheeks and playing games might be good enough in the fantasy land you seem to constantly inhabit, but it wouldn’t even get the kids through their phonics screening in my version of reality. I am afraid we have to give them more than that. We have to give them the best. Of everything. Including of ourselves.”
“Bollocks!” she said, and with that came a rather tenuous twist to this rather unexpected blog post – she drew an Ancient Greek temple on our Ikea blackboard, grabbed my hand and in we jumped.
“God Mary, I hate it when you do this.”, I said, picking bits of chalk out of my hair. But before I could get properly grumpy, a man in a toga, who looked suspiciously like a young Dick Van Dyke in a stick on beard, came over.
“Alwight Mary”, he said, in a gloriously appalling Mockney accent, “who is your mate?”
“This is Abby”, said Mary, “And Abby, this is Aristotle.”
“Of course it is.”, I said, no longer phased by these quite frankly incredulous jaunts.
Mary retold the story I have told here to Aristotle. Once she had finished, Aristotle stroked his beard, frowned, and then shouted, excitedly.
“Bless you!”, said Mary.
“No, you muppet.”, Aristotle explained, “I said ‘Eudaimonia'”. It roughly translates to mean ‘human flourishing’. If you don’t mind my saying so, Abby, if you carry on as you have been, then flourishing your children certainly won’t be: Stressed out, working in a bank at all hours – yes. Feeding the birds – not so much.”
He had a point.
“And as for all this, ‘being the best’, you can be too good, you know.”
“Try telling that to Ofsted.”, I said. “Or my ex-boss.”
Aristotle looked bemused, “Regardless of that, don’t you think this so called perfect parent might be a bit frightening, what with the constant perfection and all that?”
“Well yes”, I conceded, “It could perhaps be rather hard to flourish, happily in that environment I suppose.”
“There you go, your image is actually too good, too perfect, and therefore, in what I have termed my ‘golden mean’ view of the virtuous life, so good she is actually not perfect at all. Try and find a middle ground. Even Mary lets her hair down, slides down the banisters and dances on the roof tops now and again.”
“Up the bannisters Aristotle”, said Mary, “And I never let my hair down. But regardless, yes, agreed.”
There was then a contemplative pause.
“Hmmmm. Human flourishing…..”, I mused.
“Hmmmm. Eudaimonia…….”, pondered Aristotle.
“Hmmmm. Supercalerfragilisticexpialidocious……”, murmured Mary.
“Whatever you call, it, you get the gist.”, said Aristotle.
“Yes”, agreed Mary, “just stop trying so hard, Abby, and you could find that you are practically imperfect in every way, and it is that, in fact, that paradoxically makes you pretty marvellous when it comes to parenting.”
It started to rain, which was a surprise, it being Greece and all that, and we found ourselves back at my place.
I looked around and instead of seeing a mess, I chose to see a lived in home, instead of seeing a pile of dirty nappies waiting for the bin, I chose to see a house blessed with lovely children, instead of seeing phonics home work, I chose to accidentally not see it at all and I chucked it in the bin.
“Now”, said Mary, “Putting to one side the fact that you have just got two more opinions that you didn’t ask for from two so-called child rearing ‘experts’, do you feel a bit better?”
“You know what Mary, I think I do. Thanks for that.”
With that, the winds changed once more, she picked up her brolly and off she flew.
Later that afternoon, when the kids were
running around screaming and shouting just being kids, I called my husband.
“Husband”, I said, “why not come home from work on time today. And on your way back, could you pick up some bird seed?
“Why is that?”, said he.
“Eudaimonia” I replied.
“Eudai-whatia?” He enquired, perplexed.
“Bless you.” came my response. Then I hung up, sat down and wrote the most random blog post of my life, while the kids played around me, happy in the company of their imperfect mother.