Parents need to make peace with mediocrity during the pandemic

Trying to fill every role for your little ones is heroic but impossible

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.

I am spoiled. I have never operated a vacuum cleaner and seldom touched an iron. Forty-three years ago, when I moved in with my beloved, I left for a month to help my friend Martha care for her newborn in Vermont. My beloved was supposed to get started on a small reno. One night I called and asked for a progress report. He said the contractor hadn’t returned his call.

I said: “Did you bug him?” He said: “No.”

Clearly that wasn’t my style. I said: “How about I co-ordinate the reno, in return for which you do all my ironing and the vacuuming in perpetuity?” He agreed.

Then came the frequent cleaning lady. Julie did everything. My house was always spotless when I came home from work.

Then came COVID.

Now I clean. Every second weekend (because yes, we both still work), Leon and I do a major house clean. He does floors and bathrooms. I do the kitchen. Badly.

My cleaning is substandard. The cooktop never looks as nice as when Julie cleans it. Ovens stay stained. Countertops are streaked. Stainless steel has spots. Apparently I don’t even know how to wipe a table properly.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my cleaning career, so I reflect. Mediocrity remains my middle name. The land of mediocrity is not where I habitually dwell. In my regular work, my career, I rarely settle for less than excellence. Which is why being a crappy cleaner irks me.

But in times like this we need to make peace with mediocrity.

Parents, the news is that your best is plenty good enough. Perfect only exists in the pernicious parent-blaming place where we go to beat ourselves up — often in the dark hours before dawn.

The past year has placed inhuman demands on so many people. Parenting, once shared with teachers, extracurricular programs, community centres, grandparents and sleepovers, has become mostly a solo act, performed in isolation and with scant support.

Trying to fill all those roles for your children is heroic. Failing at it is inevitable. And that has to be OK. What does it mean that you can’t get your Grade 5 child through their math homework without tears, stomping out of the room and unanswered questions? It means that you and your child are both human, and perfection is elusive. It means you’re normal, and so is your child. This is really all too hard.

And yet, there remains a challenge parents need to meet: Relax more. You can’t truly be good to and for your kids if you’re not first being good to yourself. When your stress level redlines because of trying to school them or get them to be COVID-safe or deal with their isolation-induced loneliness (and yours), you cannot parent well. Anxious parenting isn’t helpful for either generation.

The helpful hints that proliferate online are strangely unhelpful. This craft or that woodland outing or this do-it-yourself project: taken together as a boatload of parenting advice, they add up to more pressure to be that creative, inventive, jolly, indefatigable teacher-substitute parent. I find it stressful just reading the instructions.

Stressy parenting is bad for both parent and child.

So please, please do yourself — and your kids — a huge favour: lighten up. The stakes aren’t as high as they seem. After COVID, most kids will need help catching up in school. The bar will have to be lower for a while. Kids are resilient. They’ll catch up.

Now, more than ever, they need your calm, positive support. They need you to help them find joy in the day. Dancing around the kitchen while making dinner is about 10 times more important than getting the homework done well — because it sets a positive tone in the family. Finding calm, joy — and kindness — will give your kids the sense that their world is a pretty good place despite COVID. This is the rock they need to stand on.

In order to be that foundation, all of us parents need to ease up on ourselves, to accept that we cannot achieve excellence at the new tasks COVID has imposed on us. Our well-being, and our childrens’ depends on it. We say yes to mediocrity!

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO