What does it mean to be a good parent? Is it enough to feed, clothe and provide shelter for our offspring; or do they need our undivided attention at all times? Here, Annie Ridout explores parental engagement and whether we all need to take a step back…
I rush out of the bathroom, wet hair piled up in a towel on my head, water dripping down my back. The extractor fan is spinning loudly. But above it, I hear my husband coo loudly at the baby – and the baby’s groaning cease.
What I deduce is this: as soon as I run upstairs to have a quick shower, my husband pulls out his mobile and starts Whatsapping or scrolling through the BBC News app. The baby is grumbling; the toddler is watching telly.
Hearing me finish in the shower, he feels either a bit guilty that he’s been ignoring them – or a bit worried about me walking in and seeing what’s going on. So he quickly pulls the baby into his arms, slathering him with kisses and attention. The baby is delighted and coos sweetly. So it’s this scene that I walk into…
An engaged father, fully parenting.
But what he doesn’t realise is that this situation is often reversed. It’s him nipping off for a shower, or to grab a jumper, and me pulling out my phone to check emails/Instagram/Facebook etc. And when I hear his footsteps approaching, I too put down my phone and engage with the baby who has grown bored and started whining.
So that he’ll think I’m an engaged mother, fully parenting our children.
We discuss it and I suggest that perhaps we needn’t feel on edge about how the other will judge a situation where the children are being ignored a bit. Where they are safe and supervised but not getting your undivided attention. That just having us there with them, both of us, every morning and night is enough.
Of course, we do engage with our three-year-old and seven-month-old regularly. There are often long periods with no television where we spend time gardening, painting, cooking, cutting shapes, shaking rattles, building Duplo towers and reading books together.
But in order to have this much time as a family, we are both self-employed. So work never really ends. There is always something to be done – pitched, commissioned, bought or sold.
Work and home life blend into one another. Sometimes they are separated (we wait until the children are in bed before pulling out our laptops) but most days, something will need to be arranged while we’re parenting.
Does a good parent ever ignore her kids?
I’ve written about ignoring your kids before. I think it can be good for them; encouraging independent play. But what I found most interesting about that moment, after my shower, is that my husband felt he couldn’t just own that moment. He couldn’t shamelessly work or read the news without feeling judged. By me, his wife.
It made me realise that as parents, the pressure we feel – from society, the media, parent pals, each other – to be perfect, present and fully engaged at all times can be so overwhelming that we begin lying. We pretend that we’re doing these things, when really we’re flicking through a friend’s holiday snaps on Facebook.
I think it’s time we took a step back. Saw that by just making sure our kids are clothed and safe and fed – we are doing enough. It doesn’t have to be all craft afternoons and gluten-free brownie baking. It can be ‘sit in front of the telly and ignore each other for 15 minutes.’
It doesn’t mean we love each other less. It doesn’t mean we’re crap at parenting. It just means we need a break from time-to-time; to do something for ourselves. And that’s not something to be ashamed of.
What do you think: does being a good parent mean being engaged 100% of the time?