Reflecting on his experience as a same-sex parent and adoption advocate, Damian Kerlin explains why enough is enough with the idea that mums and dads must get everything right
Perfect parents everywhere — listen up. I’ve had enough. Last week, I took my children swimming. We turned up ‘swim-ready’. They took part in their lesson, and it was only once they were showered, that I realised I had forgotten their trousers. They walked from the changing rooms to our car wrapped in a towel as parents looked on horrified.
Whenever I go away for a weekend, I’m struck by how many friends and family say the same thing.
It’s not, “I hate you, stop having such a good time”. Instead, it’s, “Where are the kids? You must miss them so much”, or, “Bet you can’t wait to get back to them”.
I’ve had several moments over the past four years as a new parent when I’ve felt that my feelings miss the mark of what is expected, something that can make you wonder if you’re lacking an instinct in some way.
“I’m sure you wish you didn’t have to go back to work” for instance, or, “Having kids changes everything, doesn’t it?”
Well, neither of the above for me. Now, put your pitchforks away for a moment and hear me out. My partner and I adopted our two boys in 2018 and it is best thing we have ever done.
But the thing nobody told us was just how hard it is, and it turns out we weren’t alone in our thinking.
I spoke to TikTok star and author of The Secret Life of an Uncool Mum, Serena Terry, aka Mammy Banter.
She says: “I had my first child, a beautiful daughter, at the tender age of 21. I was still in my 20s, but I wanted to go back and finish my degree which had been interrupted by the imminent arrival of my first born, all the while holding down my 9-5.
“I decided that it was justified and sensible to park being a social butterfly and instead embrace my duties as a mother, and soon-to-be graduate. FOMO? Suck it up princess, you’re a mammy now and it is hard!”
It’s the joke no one has let you in on. All those cute pampers ads, miniature Dr Martin shoes, children spam on Instagram, squad dates with your parent posse and those self-help books lied to us. Not once did I see an ad with a parent locked in the bathroom, or covered in sweat and vomit, praying to every god imaginable for the strength and patience to go back into what is now their life.
The once calm, poised, patient god/dess, who could sling cocktails, swear with sailors and dance uninhibited until tomorrow afternoon, can barely hold a conversation, hold their eyes open or the tears back from this newfound “bliss”.
Claire Flynn, mother-of-three, living in north Belfast told me: “In the early days, my son wouldn’t sleep through the night, not even for a few hours, while every other kid in the baby group was getting their sleep.
“I found this overwhelmingly stressful, and I did lose some confidence. Was I doing something wrong?”
With social media, parenthood has never been more visible. We post the photo, with #loving it, #parentlife, #blessed, and when people ask you, you say with all the vigour of a few hours’ sleep, “it’s honestly the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me”. Only to go home and scream into a pillow.
Terry continues: “When I graduated, I worked my way up the corporate ladder to the point that my job had me travelling a lot. My daughter was starting school, so I felt less guilty about being away, but I always felt deep down that I wasn’t doing my job as a mother correctly.
“Why? Because society and legacy perceptions of what mothers should be has engrained this sense of guilt into us if we do anything that doesn’t involve 100% round-the-clock parenting for our children. It sucks, right?
“I remember being in London and calling her before she went to school, she was with my mother. Her tooth came out. Her first tooth. I wasn’t there. I missed planting the tooth under the pillow, the excitement of that fairy visit and in return of her wee tooth, a few coins. I missed it. And I felt awful.”
A study by the University College London found that almost half (47.5%) of women with babies aged six months or younger met the threshold for postnatal depression during the first lockdown, more than double the average rates for Europe before the pandemic (23%).
It also found that one in four new fathers suffer from anxiety and depression in the first year following their children’s birth. The main culprit being social media.
At 29, Terry gave birth to her son, describing her as “a lot less naive but a lot more anxious, a lot more mentally unstable in general”.
Three weeks after having her son, she fell apart.
“I unknowingly had postnatal depression and all the pressure and guilt of the last few years of trying to be the perfect mum, wife, employee, friend and overall giver of gifts to all who were in my presence, catapulted my anxiety into an acute crescendo of panic. Unhealthily determined to get back to my best, unknowingly already being there by just surviving.”
After returning to work, Terry was having daily panic attacks and her “resilience to continue to climb the corporate ladder disappeared”. Terry describes this as “admitting defeat” where as I, and many other parents, would describe this as prioritising your family’s and own wellbeing.
She went to her doctor, and after trying holistic methods, they agreed that medication was the solution.
“I am now at peace. At peace with the pressure I once felt upon myself, put there by me ironically and spurred on by societal perceptions of what I should be. I know I don’t need to be a perfect parent, wife, friend or employee. Perfection is a myth.
“I know that I should never compare myself, my career, my home, my life to those of the airbrushed Instagram society, because it’s not real. I am real. My love for my children is real.
“My drive to be more than a mother and succeed in other areas is real. As is my need for self-care, whether that’s a night away with my husband or a coffee with friends.”
As Claire says: “Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of joy, but the reality is that it is often followed by guilt and heartbreak for having feelings of resentment.
“I don’t strive now for perfect parenting, but at this stage in my parenting career, I need balance, and the importance of happy parents — not the perfect parent.
“I have friends that would spend all their time talking about how wonderful motherhood was, but then I had other friends that brought me the reality of their life which was hugely reassuring.
“That parenting is tough and sometimes it is hard to see the rewards, when you are overwhelmed, tired, the house is a mess and you have been given a day’s notice to build a replica of an Egyptian pyramid.”
One thing the three of us have in common is that we love our children.
We can talk the lengths of ourselves as to why they do our heads in, but they are ours and we wouldn’t change them for the world. However, we also love ourselves, our careers and our friends — and that is OK.
In our ambition to make time of all of these things, we sometimes stretch ourselves too thinly. We don’t always get it right. But we are resilient, we’ll strive for better (sometimes!).
And as Terry reminds us, “three minutes after every Insta pic there is a parent who has called her kids a**holes under their breath and handed them all their iPads so that they could go and get a poo in peace”.
So, together, let’s repeat. Stop the blaming. Stop the shaming.
Cheers all you amazing parents that dust yourselves off and do it again, with the smile of a thousand curse words, shattered souls and hopefully a strong coffee or wine in hand.
You’re my people.