Stop judging parents by how their children fare

Being a mother comes with a lot of conflicted feelings. I go from wanting to literally bite into my son’s chubby thighs and cheeks to wanting to scream at him when it’s midnight and he doesn’t feel like sleeping.

It’s a rollercoaster. Adoration mixed in with tons of guilt and anxiety; a lot of it connected with the idea that some of my actions may affect him forever, or ruin him, as my internal voices suggest sometimes.

I know I’m not alone in the book of messy parental emotions. But this week, I was surprised to find these mixed feelings (the joy, the fear, the guilt) in a book set in Nigeria, around the second world war. It is Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, which I read as part of my colleague OluTimehin’s book club at The Correspondent.

It’s hardly surprising that the book caught the attention of your first 1,000 days correspondent, thanks to its title. Little did I know just how sarcastic the title is. I didn’t quite suspect that Emecheta’s writing would ring so true in my own world as it tells a story so very remote from my own. The protagonist, Nnu Ego, is an Igbo woman who moves from her village in eastern Nigeria to the city of Lagos in the 1930s. She leaves her town because she cannot get pregnant, and her value as a woman is questioned as a result.

When Nnu Ego finally becomes a mother, her worthiness is judged on how well or poorly her children fare. “She was becoming fed up of this two-way standard. When the children were good, they belonged to the father; when they were bad, they belonged to the mother,” Emecheta writes, in Nnu Ego’s voice.

What’s the point of parenting?

Considering people good or bad parents based on whether their children get a scholarship to a prestigious university or fail a year at school happens quite often. The idea is that we judge other parents (and ourselves) if we think of children as end products. As if they were projects we’re working on.

But why do we do that?

This week I’ve been reading a book that’s given me a lot of joy and reasons to stop feeling guilty. In The Gardener and The Carpenter, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik addresses the idea of parenting.

“After all, if being a parent is a kind of work aimed at creating a successful adult, it’s a pretty lousy job – long hours, non-existent pay and benefits, and lots of heavy lifting. And for 20 years you have no idea if you’ve done it well, a fact that in and of itself would make the job nerve-racking and guilt-inducing,” writes Gopnik.

It’s fascinating how she explores why we decide to take care of our children, and why human children go through such a long childhood – being so useless for such a long time compared to other mammals and animals.

But for now, I want to leave you with this idea by Gopnik: stop parenting and simply care for your child. (And beware: the special form of love that caring entails is not just restricted to mothers and fathers, but extends to carers too.)

If you want to start somewhere, consider today: with 9 out of 10 children out of school because of the coronavirus, many of us are busy trying to “parent” at home, while homeschooling and working remotely.

In my next piece, I’ll explore how you can make things easier for yourself by parenting less and letting the kids help you with this task by doing something they excel at: play.

Thanks for your help with my advisory board

Back in January, I asked you to apply to be on my advisory board. I’m putting together a group of people from readers who can help me add diversity and perspective to my coverage. 

About one hundred people replied, and I’m so grateful for your input. I’ve already reached out to some of you with personal emails, but this goes out as a thank you to all of you. Some of you may not be the right fit for this advisory board, but it was wonderful to see how willing you are to help and share your expertise.

You will be hearing more about how this experiment continues – even if it goes slowly.

And talking about evolution and love, check out this beautiful song written by three-year-old Fenn Rosenthal. 

Dinosaurs in Love features Fenn’s dad Tom Rosenthal, who’s a British songwriter.

Until next time, stay healthy and be creative,


This article first appeared in The Correspondent, the member-funded platform that shut down on 1 January 2021.

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