Annie Willmot shares some advice and encouragement for anyone who feels like they’re blagging their way through parenting
I had all these visions of transitioning seamlessly into my new role as a mother: responding to my baby’s gentle cries, settling him into his basket for the night, and just generally glowing as I went about my days, drinking hot cups of tea and enjoying his peaceful gurgling.
In reality, it was a little bit less smooth than that. And when I say less smooth, I mean rather than the gentle cruise I had perhaps pictured it was more like trying to cycle down a cobbled street while wearing flip-flops and carrying a very full bag of shopping.
When my eldest was born, some friends gave us a Quentin Blake book called Zagazoo (Red Fox). When I first read it, I thought it was just a fun little story for kids. However, rereading it recently, I now think it is one of the most accurate representations of parenthood.
In the book, a couple receive a package. Inside is a baby called Zagazoo. He’s not without faults, but they think he’s pretty great. However, they wake up one morning to find that he’s turned into a noisy baby bird of prey. They don’t know what to do. Then suddenly, he’s a clumsy elephant who causes chaos. They don’t know how they’ll manage. Then he turns into a filthy warthog, then a fiery dragon, then a shrieking bat, back to the warthog, then the elephant again, then back to the dragon…They can’t keep up! Then one day he changes into an odd shaggy animal. He’s become a teenager. They question what they should do, and they wonder what on earth will happen to them. All of a sudden, he becomes a well-rounded adult.
I had no idea that parenthood really could be like that. Just when you think you’ve sussed one thing out, there’s a new challenge thrown at you. One day a solution works, the next it doesn’t. Each day you try your hardest to raise your kids the best you can, hoping that one day, when they’re all grown up, you’ll look back and know you did a good job.
I used to struggle with the unknown. I’d do everything I could to figure out why something was happening. I wanted to know the correct answer. I needed to be in control. It’s not always possible to do that with parenting. I have so many unanswered questions every day. Questions that could prevent me from moving forward for fear that I might get it wrong.
Before becoming a parent, I was learning to put my trust in God daily and give him my fears and unanswered questions. As parenthood added new questions I knew I couldn’t answer, I would chat to God. “God, I don’t know what I am doing.” “God, why is my baby behaving like that?” “God, please help me.”
That didn’t mean I suddenly knew what I was doing, but it did move me into a place of being OK with not knowing what I was doing. I knew that God did know all the answers and he was right by my side listening to me.
I want my kids to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers
The reality is that we will never know all the answers but hopefully we can begin to think: “I don’t know everything and I’m OK with that.” We may still have days when we’re overwhelmed and struggle with the unknown but, by taking our worries to God, we can learn to feel at peace in difficult times.
I used to coach young people and we taught them that even when they felt powerless in their circum- stances, they always had a choice. The same is true in parenthood. It can be easy to take on a victim mentality, thinking there’s nothing we can do, but we always have a choice. On the messiest days of parenthood, when everyone is sick or it feels like everything has gone wrong, I’ve felt like a victim. But even though I may not be able to make everyone instantly healthy or figure out how I upset my toddler, I can choose how to respond.
I’m not powerless. I can choose how I behave. I can also choose to feel OK with not knowing how to respond.
That may sound easier said than done, it’s taken practice and a lot of prayer, but when I started telling myself that I had a choice, it shifted my mindset and how I reacted to situations. My circumstances might not have changed, the day might still have been pretty rubbish, but I know now I can choose how I am going to feel and behave in the middle of that rubbishness!
Here are a few thoughts and questions to get us thinking about what it might look like to be OK with not knowing what we’re doing all the time.
Connect with God
God is constant in the unknown. He knows all of the answers (even if he doesn’t always reveal them to us) and he knows us and our children intimately. When we shift our focus on to him, the unknown seems to shrink in comparison. When I feel overwhelmed, it’s like there’s so much in my head that I can’t find space to focus on God, so I often have to visualise handing over those unanswered questions and creating space for God.
Paul’s prayer for fellow believers in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:16-21) is one I come back to again and again. When I read that passage, I remind myself of how incredibly powerful God is and that his power is at work within me. I don’t know all the answers but I know that God is so much bigger. Even his love is like an unanswered question, which I will never fully understand. And that’s OK!
Find friends who don’t know either
A friend and I often message each other. Our conversations generally begin by one of us texting: “I have no idea what to do about…” and the other replying: “I didn’t either. Here’s what I tried…”
Sharing ideas is helpful, but the fact that we stand together, with no judgement and total empathy, in that unknown place is deeply reassuring. If you’re finding parenting hard, then could you ask a trusted friend to check in with you or to keep you accountable in choosing to be OK with not knowing everything?
Remember the good moments
When you’re feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be easy to spiral into a place of feeling like you never know what you’re doing. In those moments, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the times when our children thought we were the best parent in the world. Those times when they came over and kissed your knee for absolutely no reason. Or when they said: “Thanks, Mum” unprompted and really meant it.
Just recently my son told me he was proud of me, for no particular reason. That phrase and his sweet little smile carried me through a very tearful week when both of my sons were poorly and I wasn’t able to figure out how to fix things for them.
It can be easy to take on a victim mentality, thinking there’s nothing we can do, but we always have a choice
It’s OK not to know what you’re doing
Sometimes it seems like everyone else knows what they’re doing. They don’t. Well, enough parents have honestly admitted to me that they don’t, to assume that the rest probably don’t either.
I think that one of the most powerful things I can teach my kids is that it’s OK not to know what you’re doing. As someone who has struggled with that, I want my kids to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. So, when my eldest asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I confidently reply:
“I don’t know. What do you think?” Sometimes we discuss the possible answers together, sometimes he replies: “I don’t know either”, and sometimes we chat to God about what the answer might be. Whatever conversation follows, I know that he’s also learning that it’s OK not to know all the answers and I love that we’re on that journey together.
Whether you’re reading this as a parent or carer, or as someone who works alongside children and young people, I wonder if we can all learn to be more OK with not knowing all the answers.
This is an adapted chapter from Cold Cups of Tea and Hiding in the Loo: An honest look at parenting (CWR) by Annie Willmot. The book is a conversation about figuring out how to do faith as a parent in the messiness of everyday life. Filled with personal experiences, successes as well as failures, Annie hopes that it will encourage other parents to start having honest conversations of their own too.