Be less perfect

How can we help our daughters become happy adults when we too are subject to many of the same pressures they face?

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Shell Images

This weekend marks World Mental Health Day and mental health has been a big worry during the pandemic, particularly when it comes to young people.

There has been much written about how the lockdown periods have affected young people’s mental health – the isolation from friends, bereavement, the worries about school work and falling behind and anxiety about catching or passing on the virus [or family members getting it] have taken a big toll on many young people. On top of this they have had to contend with financial stress on parents, uncertainty about the future, the impact of sudden changes in family income and much more.

Many of these stresses are ongoing and may worsen – for instance, the ending of the 20 pound a week uplift in Universal Credit, combined with rising food costs and escalating heating bills, could push many families below the poverty line.

Moreover, mental health issues are often slow burners if not addressed early and become more entrenched over time, making them harder to deal with. Health issues can escalate – anxiety can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviour or eating disorders as young people seek to assert some control over their situation and things can deteriorate, sometimes taking years to resolve.

And it’s not as if we were starting from a great position before Covid. My colleague Benedetta’s review of Rise of the Girl shows the huge toll the push towards perfectionism takes on young women, surrounded by social media images that are often more about self promotion and ‘popularity’ than connection, which can make them feel much worse about themselves. My eldest daughter told me she came off Facebook at 14 when she realised it was “just people pretending to be happy”. She felt much better as a result, but nevertheless put enormous pressure on herself in all aspects of her life – her gap year was marred by the feeling that she should be doing something extraordinary, travelling the world. Instead she worked in a cafe and did her best to make every customer feel special, just like she did with everyone else she met. She felt inadequate even though she was extraordinary and wonderful in every possible way.

It is hard to watch this as a parent. It is also hard because, as mothers, we are under many of the very same pressures, exposed to soft-focus images of parenting on social media that make us feel we are not doing it right, judged that every part of us and everything we do is not up to scratch, held to impossible standards at home and at work. But that should mean we can spot them for what they are. The problem is that even if you try to turn off all the noise, it can be hard to escape it. It is everywhere you look. Not just the pressure to parent better, whatever that means, but the pressure to look great and have an amazing career…and not just have a great career, while juggling multiple children, but also to ‘be a role model’, ‘live our best lives’, ‘change the world’ and ‘make a difference’.

While some of the latter things are meant to be ’empowering’, they can feel a little overwhelming at times. Some days you just don’t feel up to changing the world. Just getting through the day is enough. Showing young people – whether they are your children or your colleagues – that that’s okay is, in fact, being a good role model.

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