Society think parents should be perfect, but perfection is elusive.
When you first enter Virginia Berry’s house, two things are clear: an artist and children live here.
The walls are covered with paintings, and art pieces adorn every shelf. Three sofas sit at either end of the living room, with a giant table in between them. The table is overflowing with magazines, paper, various paints, brushes, and ink, with projects in various stages of creation. The path between the sofas is cluttered with children’s toys.
“Here is a realistically chaotic house with kids,” Berry said, laughing.
Berry is an artist and writer who is currently working on her first children’s book. She is also a mother of two little girls.
Her youngest, Leila, 2, climbs on her mother’s shoulders and back as if she was a tree and each branch should be explored, while Berry has to adjust her glasses often as those little arms and legs land on her face. Berry’s eldest, Lundy, 5, is in daycare.
When Berry stops paying attention to Leila, the little one somehow manages to ignore all the toys scattered across the floor and instead digs through the pile of art supplies to find a pair of scissors. In a flash, Berry leaps from the couch to grab them.
“Where were we?” said Berry, sighing as she sat back. “Ah yes, the judgment.”
Parenting, she says, is full of it.
It comes in the form of unsolicited advice, critical looks from complete strangers, and the most lethal form – self-criticism.
“The guilt of not being good enough is always there,” said Berry. “The other day, I was working on a book project while Leila was sitting in front of the TV. I almost cried because I felt so guilty for not being with her.”
Before her children were born, one of her friends told her that all her time will be consumed by her children and her artistic pursuits will be a distant second.
“So, every time I’m choosing to focus on my projects,” said Berry, “I’m thinking am I doing the right thing? Am I allowed to? Am I hurting them for life if I take this time for myself? The thoughts are always there.”
Another thing that is always there, she says, is the pressure to be perfect.
“I think outwardly everyone wants to appear as if they are putting 100 per cent into parenting,” said Berry. “And when your parenting flaws surface in a public forum, it’s embarrassing because you know that everyone around you is looking at you. Are they judging you? Maybe they can’t believe you’re letting your toddler cry in public, but then again, maybe some are relieved that someone else is (just as much an) inadequately chaotic parent …”
“I’m still learning to love that person.”
Even with taking classes and reading parenting books, she says no one is truly prepared for the job or the changes their body will go through.
Last year, she wrote a short story which appeared on Reedsy.com about her changing body after pregnancy, called Zebra Stripes and Shoes.
In the article, she discusses her new stretch marks, clothes that no longer fit, and designer shoes she collected over the years that are now unwearable.
“It was a humorous way of looking at the depression I felt as I looked at myself and realized I’m not the young, beautiful person I was before having kids,” she said. “My body looks and feels different. I became a new type of person, and I had to learn to love that person.
“I’m still learning to love that person.”
Nestled between neighbourhoods in the east end of St. John’s is the MacMorran Community Centre. The parking lot is small and well used. For the past 40 years, the centre has served as a place where people can access health services and community programs.
One of these programs is aimed at parents of newborns as old as five. Its simple message is that no parent is perfect.
Jim Crockwell sits in his office. The curtains on the windows are closed just enough to soften the brightness outside. He has been the executive director of the centre for the past 16 years.
“The program is designed with young parents in mind,” said Crockwell. “Parents who have just had a baby, it’s about giving them all the resources they need, whether it’s safety aspects, parenting advice, and of course, a safe space to speak about mental health.”
With his children in their early twenties, Crockwell still remembers the stress of trying to do everything right when they were little.
“In a big way, I was lucky because I had a lot of help and resources during those times. However, some people, especially those from low-income families (that) do not have many resources to rely on, experience more stress with parenting.”
Called Nobody’s Perfect, the program will be facilitated by a practical nurse who will lead discussions and offer parenting skills. The centre will also provide on-site daycare during the one-hour meetings which will take place once a week. Currently, says Crockwell, they are in the process of recruiting people with the hope of officially starting the program in late spring.
“But I guess allowing her to do that, to an extent, has given her a lot more courage and general bravery than I ever had. And I don’t want to take that away from her.”
That stress is what the program aims to address.
“This isn’t a place where we tell parents what to do. We want to remove any sense of judgment,” said Crockwell. “It’s an open space for discussion, sharing frustrations, and learning new skills to alleviate some of the stress that many young parents feel at that stage.”
Independent and energetic, Berry’s oldest daughter, Lundy, may increase her stress levels, but Berry is also proud of who she is becoming.
“She would walk herself to school if I let her, and I have to remind her that she is only five,” said Berry.
“Lundy is pretty fearless. And for a long time that was hard because fearlessness in a toddler looks like naughty defiance, getting into danger, and risky things. But I guess allowing her to do that, to an extent, has given her a lot more courage and general bravery than I ever had. And I don’t want to take that away from her.”
There is a fine line between controlling negative behaviours and squandering a beneficial personality trait, Berry says.
“We were at a festival a few weeks ago creating art, and when she was done with her piece, she went around the room and showed people her work. She talked to everyone, young, old, gay, or trans. She was not afraid of anybody, and I loved that about her.”
Arlette Lazarenko is a journalist and editor for Kicker News. She is an avid reader with a passion for people, culture and technology. She lives in St. John’s with her husband.