How do we know if we are good parents? Our children mean the world to us but so often we are plagued by doubt and the constant questions in our minds; questions about doing what is right for us and what is good for our children. It doesn't help that the 'experts' insist on telling us that there is a right and a wrong way to raise our kids, not to mention the mountain of often-contradictory research finding that manage to pile on the guilt for all parents at different times.
I became a single father ten years ago, almost to the day. As a man raising my son alone I have often been the target of intense criticism. My son was four years old when his mother died and I quickly had to realise that raising him was the most important task in my life. Everyone around me had advice; had the perfect solution to an imperfect problem and I quickly began to feel battered and bruised from the well meaning yet mentally exhausting onslaught. Some advice I took and later regretted; other advice I ignored when I should have listened. Eventually I learned whose advice I could trust and much later realised that single fatherhood was a thing I needed to grow into and the advice became like stabilisers waiting to be removed as my confidence grew. The main problem, however, was that I wanted to be the perfect dad.
Striving for perfection is exhausting. I found myself trying to be everything at once: the strict dad, the caring dad, the helper of homework and fixer of bikes. You can only keep that up for so long before you make yourself ill, before becoming enveloped in an emotional sandstorm. My one job in life was to see him grow into adulthood and I wanted to do the best job I could.
Ten years on and the stabilisers are gone, but the perfect dad remains an elusive figure. I still question my ability as a father even though my son is everything I could have hoped he would become. The loss of his mother has been harder on me than on him, I think. He recalls her in emotions and fragmented memories but the face in the photographs mean very little to him. He does not miss her when we reach those significant milestones because he can't recall her ever being there. It's different for me of course: there will always be someone missing, someone who should be there to celebrate and document first days at school or the starring role in a play. I catch myself glancing around at the mums and dads and can't help but think that it was never supposed to be this way, wondering if in some parallel universe we are still a family.
The most significant thing I have come to realise is that the perfect father I wanted to be simply doesn't exist. I have made mistakes and I know I will continue to make them (often, and on a daily basis). Striving to be the best dad in the world won't make me into that perfect father because sometimes the best you can be is just good enough.