I recently had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. I was late to a meeting, and then had heaps of work deadlines which I struggled to meet. I had a motorist chase me for several blocks abusing me because I accidentally cut them off, and an ongoing email argument with my ex. Then I had to race to pick up my kids from after-school care before it shut.
Exhausted and dejected, I drove home and sat in the kitchen, ready to burst into tears. Then one of my kids wandered in and asked that dreaded question, "What's for dinner?"
I scrounged through the cupboards and the fridge and managed to pull together the saddest representation of a meal I've ever seen: carrot sticks, boiled eggs, cheese, some cereal and a handful of sultanas.
Unable to face the idea of eating this plate of misery as a regular family dinner around the dining table, I turned on the TV and told the kids they could eat in the lounge.
Feeling like a massive parenting loser, I hid away in the kitchen eating my miserable "meal", drinking a helpful glass of merlot, and feeling sorry for myself.
What kind of parent thinks this is a good way to take care of their kids? What kind of lifelong damage am I causing by being busy and distracted when I'm supposed to be present and engaged?
After a good night's sleep, of course, I felt back to myself. I went out early to my local market and stocked up on fruit and vegetables. I made new to-do lists so I could get on top of things, I helped my children get ready for school, and I planned a healthy family meal together for that evening.
Life got back to normal.
It wasn't until a couple of weeks later when I was at a friend's barbecue that I was exposed to a different perspective on that evening. I overheard my seven-year-old son talking to a friend.
"We got to have dinner in front of the TV, with cereal and sultanas, and we didn't even have to eat salad. It was so great!"
"No way!" exclaimed his friend. "I wish my mum would let us do that."
"It was the best!" agreed my son earnestly.
It was at that moment, listening to my son's take on how that evening went, that I realised I can be my own worst parenting enemy. I put immense pressure on myself to be there, be present, to be organised, and be the best parent I can be all the time.
I asked my teenage daughter how she felt about those nights when we scavenge for food and watch TV. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "They're fine with me."
That's code for a teenage endorsement. "Fine" is about as good as things get.
She continued, "I don't have to talk or listen to other people – I can just switch off. I'm glad we don't do it all the time, but I like having a night off from being a functioning member of this family."
You and me both, kid.
The thing is, this isn't the first time I've felt like a crappy parent, only to find out that my kids thought I was awesome. That time I let them sit on their iPads for three hours while I caught up with an old friend, that time I let them play outside until well after dark because we were on holidays and I couldn't be bothered cooking yet, that time we ate takeaway three nights in a row because I just couldn't get organised.
What I've realised now is that there is beauty in our failings, in letting go and allowing things to fall where they may. And I think it's important for my kids to see that too. You don't have to be on your game all the time. It's okay to drop your bundle, sit down and breathe.
And even if my kids learn nothing from those occasions, not everything has to be an educational experience.
Parenting is relentless and mostly thankless, and we all seem to hold ourselves up to such high standards these days. We compare ourselves to those perfect online versions of parents who just aren't real.
I don't think I've ever done anything that made me feel like a failure as much as parenting does on a regular basis. But those bumps in the road we all face are part of the fabric of family life.
I'm doing the best I can, and my kids are doing just fine.