Most parents’ greatest fear is stuffing up their kids’ childhoods.
It’s mine too, although the more I learn about the far-from-perfect world I’m preparing my kids for, the better I can accept the small stuff-ups in my day-to-day parenting.
Our kids need to be ready for world-class imperfect. To do this they need to practice coping with disappointment. I try as hard as any parent to protect my kids and give them the best of each day, but it’s safe to say they get their fair share of disappointment practice in my care! This comes through the usual little let-downs, most of which will occur inevitably anyway.
It’s important that it’s me they find disappointing, as I’m best placed to hear their protest and work with them on a way through. Like all kids they need people they trust to be in the daily messes with them, and mop up as best they can.
This ability to bounce back well after a fall is often called resilience, a buzz word in parenting and education of late. It’s becoming common knowledge about having kids, the way we all just know to expect sleep deprivation and smelly nappies.
What isn’t yet common knowledge is what is really needed for an adult mind to foster that resilience in parent as well as child. We still don’t really have a water cooler shorthand for how adults truly provide for their children.
“A roof over their heads” has long been shorthand for “We are doing the basics for them at least”. That needs updating.
So, what about a roof over a child’s heart? How do parents build and maintain a roof that will go wherever their child goes throughout life?
I’ll pitch my response to this as a conversation with parents, representing the hundreds of my patients and many colleagues, family and friends who’ve given me glimpses of their family life.
Let’s start with something vital that I have learned from them…
Parents: Right then, what have we taught you that’s so vital?
Me: Just as a mum’s body gets injured getting a baby out into the world, the relationship between parents suffers an injury in creating new life. Just like bodies, these relationships need active efforts to support healing.
Parents: OK, so we need to heal our relationship. Which got injured. Which was normal. But we’re putting the baby first! We’ll get to healing later…
Me: Healing can’t wait I’m afraid. The relationship between parents is the roof over a child’s heart, which will remain in place long after they have grown up and left the parental roof behind. Importantly, this heart-roof can be maintained by parents not in a couple relationship, or parents who are not under the same physical roof.
Parents: So we need to start healing our relationship now. Running repairs to the baby’s heart-roof. How?
Me: Start by respecting motherhood and fatherhood equally. They are not the same, but they are equally important.
Parents: We matter equally to the baby, if in different ways?
Me: Yep. Mums’ bodies do the physical birth, but a baby’s psychological birth is equally dads’ and mums’ business. When we bear our kids in mind, their minds are born. And when we adults bear each other in mind, their minds grow.
Parents: Best treat each other well if we want the baby to grow well.
Me: Sorting out how to do this is the job at the heart of parenthood, the second toughest job on the planet…after being a baby.
Parents: Right, interesting perspective. We have the toughest job after the baby. Try telling my boss that! So what do we do, have a Date Night?
Me: Well…Date Nights help with some parts of healing parental relationships after babies, but can create pressure to have fun, or to have meaningful conversation. Parents. At night. In a restaurant. There are design problems here.
Parents: Tell us about it. Babysitters, finding clothes that fit, buying nice undies! Talk about delusional optimism…must be the sleep deprivation.
Me: Protected Adult Connection Time – PACT – is my attempt at a design fix for this. An hour a week, in daylight hours, needs to be set aside for parents to be together, without having to care directly for their kids, and without the pressure to have fun or solve big problems. It could be, for example: 10am on a Saturday, folding washing while a baby sleeps, or walking with child in stroller; or veggie gardening while a trusted adult minds your little one.
Parents: So we don’t need a babysitter every week? Well that makes it a less crazy idea.
Me: The main point is being present together, alongside each other, doing something that gives two brains their best chance to be on the same page. Make it a habit – hallowed turf. Not so long ago in the western world no one would have dreamed of asking you to do something at 10 am on a Sunday – pretty much everyone was at church. If we could create that precious, broadly accepted protection of a vital human ritual, parents repairing their relationship every week, I think we could produce healthier little humans.
Parents: Is that it? Fix the kid’s heart-roof by spending time alone together as adults?
Me: No, there’s way more. But that’s a start.
Parents: Is this our homework?
Me: Definitely not. Nobody does their homework! Call it chipping away at the retirement fund, which is so much more than financial. Repair well now, and you’ll more likely have well-adjusted kids who don’t keep you awake at night as young adults, and the added bonus of a middle-aged and then elderly co-parent you actually know and love.
Parents: You’re going long on us now…
Me: Sure I am. After all, what would we all like our kids to be able to say at our funerals? ‘My parents loved each other. I learned how to love by living with them. Now I’m teaching my kid.’
Yes, that is a point in a conversation like this where words can fail a bit. As maybe they should when we are thinking about the emotional legacy of parenthood.
But then we need to get the words flowing again, to work out what day-to-day steps we take towards leaving the roof we put up over our children’s hearts in the best possible condition.
The PACT idea I hope creates a first-step habit for regular healthy thinking together, getting the words flowing one little unhurried conversation at a time, so we don’t get overwhelmed by the size of the task.
Which would be: Stuffing parenthood up as little as we can, in little ways, repairing as we go. Providing enough practice at this for our kids to cope well with all that is stuffed-up about the world.
We do this so that our children’s hearts can learn to tell how, when and with whom to take shelter.
So that together these next-generation humans can help one another un-stuff-up the world we are leaving for them.