I Feel I’m Not Doing Enough

I have a four-year-old son who I love dearly but I don’t deserve. I’m not abusive or neglectful, but I feel like what I do for him is not good enough. I have a loving husband, but he works such long hours. I recently graduated from college while maintaining the household, taking care of my son and working full-time at night. I get three hours’ sleep in the early morning and another two before I go back out to work. I don’t know how long I can go on. I feel as if we live in a society where everyone is in competition with one another instead of trying to help each other. I constantly see on Facebook how so-and-so’s child can do this or that and I just think of all the things my son can’t do and feel he will be disadvantaged. Every time I begin the search for a preschool programme I get sick to my stomach that they will kick him out for being behind or for his attitude or because he won’t wipe his butt etc.

Let me reorder your list of worries. First and foremost you need a good night’s sleep. On what you’re averaging I’d be surprised if you could make out individual letters on this page, let alone what I have to say more generally. It might also be a good idea to log on to Mumsnet instead of Facebook for a more realistic and honest account of the challenges of parenting.

You’re a young, exhausted mother, trying to educate a four-year-old on five inconsecutive hours’ sleep a day! No wonder you are struggling to cope – it makes me exhausted just reading your schedule.

There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. It addles our minds, and our bodies really can’t stand it. You’re absolutely right that you need to lower your expectations, not just of yourself – though that’s an important place to start – but also of your son. He’s a tadpole and just coming to terms with the world around him. The boy you describe doesn’t sound difficult, just human. I know boys of 10 who still have to be reminded to wipe their bottoms, so getting your son to do so on a fairly regular basis is a minor miracle.

You mention in your longer letter how he no longer wants to recite his alphabet or write his name, and that just makes him one of the vast majority of kids who tend to dig their heels in the moment they recognise that you want them to do something. I suspect the less like work you make learning the more he’ll respond with enthusiasm. I’m no child psychologist, but I am a mother of two children myself, and reading your letter makes me despair at my own far lazier approach to their learning. I thought reading them a bedside story and, now, pointing out every time they say “like” out of context was enough from me. You’ve set the bar high for yourself and it sounds as though it’s been dictated by the unattainable standards you’ve observed being set on social media.

Basing your reality on other people’s fantasy lives is never going to make you feel good. Whether it’s holiday snaps on Facebook or perfect meals captured on Instagram, the most important thing to remember is that just because it’s dressed up as real doesn’t make it so. Regular readers will agree that my scepticism knows no bounds when it comes to the “reality” being dished up online. I disagree with only one observation you make, and that’s that our society is based on competition rather than altruism. There are plenty of kind, decent people around; to find them you just need to shut your eyes and ears to the deafening chorus of fakes.

Locate a weekly playgroup in your area. Not only will your son be learning skills while having fun, but you might also make some supportive friends you can call on. And stop prevaricating about preschool – I’m sure you’d both benefit from the degree of independence that would give you. Most importantly, calling a helpline, such as FamilyLine (0808 800 5678), would be a positive step. They will give you practical advice on what to do to reduce the pressure you are under.

While it’s admirable that you want him to learn new skills, it’s not necessary to add to your “to do” list at present. Rather than taking on the burden of teaching him beyond the basics, just aim to have some fun together. You’d be surprised how much kids learn simply by observing the world around them. The rest will come at school, and with a supportive parent like you, I have no doubt he will flourish academically when the time is right.

Finally, and this may be the hardest thing for you to tackle, consider changing your job, or at least your working hours. No full-time parent could survive long-term on the punishing schedule you are enduring, and no child will thrive if their main carer is struggling to cope. The burden you are under is untenable and you need to change the status quo. It sounds to me as if your son is blessed with hardworking parents who want the best for him while he’s stamping his foot for some playtime with you. Try just hanging out, reading a story or taking a walk instead of cramming him in preparation for preschool.

The days of diligent study and testing exams will come all too soon. For now the best mental and physical nourishment he could have is the company of his more relaxed mum.