Letting go of parenting guilt
"Sometimes it feels there’s an entire industry devoted to making modern mothers feel guilty and worried" ... Sarah McDonald
My kids watched so much TV over the holidays that they eventually went on a desperate search for something new. They dug up a relic of my childhood: The Brady Bunch. My children didn't see what I consider the best episodes (Greg moves into the den/Marcia meets Davy Jones), but they were entranced by the show.
Meanwhile, I watched with adult eyes, amazed at Mike and Carol’s ability to solve crisis after crisis. When Greg got clobbered in baseball, Jan got jealous of Marcia and Cindy got teased, the polyester-clad power parents simply gathered the children for a serious little talk, a hokey joke and a hug. And of course each problem was solved before the end song.
As I watched and remembered far too much of the dialogue, I wondered if Mike and Carol were the first ‘professional parents’ in mainstream media. They were always at home, always available, always appreciated. Perhaps this show of my childhood was the beginning of my generation’s journey into guilt, anxiety and the borderline neuroticism that is modern parenting.
A recent UK survey of 2000 mothers found that more than 90 per cent of us feel guilty at some point, while 50 per cent are wracked by guilt most or ‘all of the time’. Three quarters of women constantly worry about whether they're a good mother or not. The survey also found that women who work worry about not having enough time with their kids, and women who don’t work worry about wanting to do so. Welcome to the post-Brady world where we have, on average, one-third of the family size, but 10 times the anxiety.
Sometimes it feels there’s an entire industry devoted to making modern mothers feel guilty and worried. With an explosion in parenting methods, books, TV shows, surveys and products, women are surrounded by an overload of information, ideas and options.
We all know that guilt isn't pretty; it leads to scrutiny and judgement of others. Of course we've all met insecure, judgmental people who prickle, but I find most women actually support each other’s decisions. The most common method of parenting in my neighbourhood is ‘do what you can to get by’.
So what’s feeding the guilt? While it’s fabulous to have information and forums to discuss the big and little quandaries in life with kids, I wonder if perhaps we now have too much - we now suffer from ‘option overload’. I remember ruminating for weeks about whether I should send my child to a Montessori or Steiner childcare centre – spoilt for choice, the decision was almost paralysing. When I did make a decision I felt empowered, until I realised it could have been the wrong one. Of course it goes on – I still wonder if I should have sent my child to a school teaching foreign languages.
We all have doubts, but they're blown out of proportion by all the alternatives. And by having made a choice we feel we can make more demands. Educators swear that parents didn’t used to be as pushy and demanding, but it wasn't just a respect for authority that made previous parents more amenable – they had less choice. When I was growing up, most people implemented Dr Spock’s advice, sent their kids to the local school and let them watch hours of cartoons so Mum could don a Kaftan and make fondue (in my fantasy, anyway). If no one is selling you alternatives, decisions are less onerous and less doubt inducing.
Yet, I don’t think my worries are entirely new. I know for a fact that my mother still feels guilty about decisions she made when we were young. She doesn’t pat herself on the back for the good decisions, like swimming squad and moving me to a different school in year 11; instead, she ruminates on not giving enough attention to her youngest, not telling off a teacher who tormented another. And we’re all in our forties, for God’s sake!
Perhaps we just act more on our anxiety now. We know too much. We are fed too many crises, concerns, reports and surveys. It’s almost funny that the latest crisis in parenting is about us over-parenting. The dangers of helicopter parenting are rotating through the media and our minds. Parents are now being whipped into anxiety about being too anxious.
And if you come across The Brady Bunch reruns, keep all this in mind: the actor that played the perfect husband Mike was actually gay, Florence Henderson (Carol) dated her on-screen son Greg (Barry Williams), and Barry actually slept with his on-screen sister - perfect, beautiful Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (Maureen McCormack). Poor Maureen was so traumatised by being in the perfect family she had problems with drug addiction and depression for many years.
If there’s a warning here, perhaps it’s the trying to be perfect that’s screwing us up. My favourite Brady was - and still is - the troubled, insecure, grumpy Jan. My daughter concurs.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.