‘Should’ can be an unhelpful word, particularly when we use it as a weapon with which to beat ourselves.
Life is fast and competitive and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our awareness of what other people are doing. I enjoy feeling connected to people I know and people I don’t via social media, and getting little insights into lives that are different from mine. But I can also feel myself drawing unhelpful comparisons. Noticing things that other people do that I don’t, and interpreting them as evidence of my failings.
But just because something exists as a possibility, it doesn’t mean that you should do it. It’s just one of the options. Do it or don’t, no-one cares.
My problem is that I hear ‘should’ when it’s not even being said. I confuse hearing somebody say “I am doing XYZ” with “You should be doing XYZ.” I see people talking about how they’re raising their children or building their careers or decorating their homes, and forget that what they’re saying has no relation to me.
I’ve always struggled with the fear that I’m not doing the right thing. I don’t mean morally or legally – fear is such a dominant emotion for me that I’m always pretty confident I’m on the right side of the law. No, I’m worried about doing The Optimum Thing.
If we’re on holiday and looking for a restaurant, I’ll worry about choosing the ‘right’ one. What if we’d have had a better time elsewhere? What if that table by the window would have enhanced our experience? What if sitting this near the loos ruins the ambience? What if it’s actually this thought process that’ll ruin our night?
And now that I’m a parent, I – like every single mother on earth, probably – worry that I’m not doing everything I ‘should’ do for my daughter. Should we be at a class? Should we be socialising? Should we be playing educational games indoors? Should I be doing more to make the most of her – whatever that means? As if just loving and caring for her with everything I’ve got isn’t enough.
Parenting is relentless decision making. And what’s harder than being the person who has to make them all, is the realisation that nobody’s going to come along and let you know if you’re doing it right. You just have to trust yourself in the moment.
When our daughter was very small, I used to imagine there would be a time in years to come when she’d say to me: “Mum, you know that day when I was so upset in January 2018? It’s because I wanted you to heat my milk up/put me to bed/ turn off that unbearable episode of Gossip Girl.” But as the sleep deprivation started to wear off, I realised: That’s not going to happen.
You’ll never know if you did the right thing, because the right thing doesn’t really exist. There’s no list, charting all the options in order of preference, nor is there a jury waiting to judge you on your choices. We have to be our own adjudicators.
It’s true for all areas of our lives. There’s no adjudicator who’s going to come and tell you which career path you ‘should’ have taken, which date you ‘should’ have gone on, or which Netflix series you ‘should’ have chosen to best entertain your baby. We did what we did based on the information we had at the time – there’s no other way to do it.
Since becoming a mother I’ve learnt that, to be happy, I have to accept my choices as I make them, one by one. Decisions require my attention quickly; I don’t always see them coming. I can’t always nail it, and, if I’m not careful, I’ll spiral into a long and pointless thought process about what I ‘should’ have done instead.
But now I’ve realised how unhelpful that is, and how many moments with my baby I’ll miss if I spend all my time analysing what I’ve done in the past.
Instead it’s better to focus on making decisions that suit us both today. My daughter is the most important person in the world to me, and I’m that to her, too. So when I’m deciding how we spend our time, it’s OK that I do so with what I need in mind as well – my energy levels, my mental health – because if I’m well, so is she. As I’ve written before, the inherent guilt of parenting makes it hard to prioritise yourself, but with nine months of experience under my belt, I can tell you: you must.
So I want to park the ‘should’ and have a little more faith. In myself as a parent and as a fallible human being, and in the need for there to be healthy differences between how we all lead our lives.
Because time will pass, no matter how we spend it. And to hand more of our precious hours over to regret, rather than to joy, and to self-criticism rather than kindness, feels like the kind of waste we should all do our best to avoid.