What kind of parent are you choosing to be today? Some of the parents I work with feel that their parenting life is slog, a trudge, an endless series of chores and battles. And they are battle-weary and so disillusioned that they can’t remember ever being illusioned! They go through the motions of their parenting ‘jobs’ and feel that they have little control of their children and no control over their life everyday. Their energy levels are way below par. Time for themselves is a concept that they do not recognise and the idea of looking after themselves just makes them feel even more weary as they have no idea where they would fit this in. They either have a very strictly adhered to schedule and routine so that they can grip onto the control that this brings with clenched fists, gritted teeth and a grimace. Or they have no routine, no structure but those imposed by the outside world through school start and finish times and their and working hours.
My experience of this dark place was a period of about a year, when my second daughter was born. After my first daughter’s birth, life flicked back to ‘normal’ pretty quickly. Work, the gym and nights out were scheduled back in easily. After the second, I moved into a place of resentment and sadness and a feeling of the relentless-nature of caring for family and children pervaded me. Looking back, I probably had a dose of postnatal depression. I certainly felt listless, flat and put-upon. At a talk I gave recently, one of the mums in the audience referred to a period in her own life when her baby was small; she wondered when she would ‘get her life back again?’ She told us that she pictured her life as being buried beneath the demands of her new mothering role and that she’d literally need to dig it out and uncover it again, from the mountain of new expectations and roles she now had. Then one day she realised that this was her life now! And I had the same realisation when my second baby turned one.
Acceptance happened. Realignment happened. Do, ditch or delegate happened. I began to choose what was important to me and what I wanted to discard as remnants and expectations of my life before children.
Choices can be made about the way you use your time and the about the tasks you choose to fill life with. Some tasks are not meaningful within themselves but we do them as they are an important part of the bigger picture of our life, and therefore do have meaning and purpose. Other tasks are mundane and unimportant. For these we can either find a context to place them in that helps them serve a higher purpose for us and do them, can cut them out/ ditch them if possible or delegate them by applying other resources such as money, sharing, swapping or bartering for them. Here are a few examples of choices in action for me:
From 16-22 years old I worked in the coffee-shop at a very busy out-of-town supermarket. I worked really hard but the time flew and the money was good. The people I worked with were great people to spend a day with. Did I love the job? No. Did I mind going to work? No. I loved what the job gave me- the money that helped to put me through university. There was purpose and intention in the work I did that was part of a big-picture that inspired me and built a part of my future. My studies in psychology and social biology that it helped to fund, were part of the foundation I was laying for the life I wanted and for the future I was building.
Do I love making packed lunches? No! Do I love providing my children with a box of nourishing food that I have prepared for them with their physical health and well-being in mind? Do I love the fact that they open pots and boxes that they unconsciously know Mummy has made for them and with them in mind whilst they are out in the world independently? Yes to both of these! And in keeping with the food theme for a moment, do I love the fact that my mothering role seems to be a journey from one meal to the next and the next and the next? Not really! But do I love the fact that via our mealtimes I create a time and space where we sit together, talk together and connect and share in food and daily life.
Do I love cleaning? Actually I don’t mind it. Do I do much cleaning? No. I have learnt to live with a bit more dust and will delegate this job out one of these days! There was a sunny day a while back; it was one of those bright days after the winter when the sun shines for the first time in ages and shows up all of the dust in the house. I was compelled into action to do some dust-busting. I moved the sofas and toy boxes out, sloshed warm soapy water about and made everything smell delicious with Pledge. And as I moved books from the book case to clean the shelves, my eldest daughter wailed: “Oh Mummy! Why can’t you be like you always are? Why are you cleaning and not playing with me?”
What kind of Mum do I want to be? What kind of parent do you want to be? I do not ask this glibly. These are not rhetorical questions. Because being a mum is a major challenge. The to-do list is monumental and the expectations are vast. Something has to give, and I actively and consciously choose what that will be. And my ideas of this will be different to yours. You will have your own values and priorities which will shape how your do, ditch or delegate will shape-up.
One of my motivating and guiding beliefs is that love and connection are more important than perfection. I will have plenty of time to have a home worthy of glossy magazine pages in the years when I am not at the very centre of my children’s lives. For now, they want to spend time with me. They still want to wander slowly and hold my hand, they still want me to sit outside the toilet playing ‘I Spy’ whilst they go, they are still happy to tell me about their day at school, they still want to ‘help me’ pull washing out of the machine, they still want me to help them make houses out of Crunchy Nut Cornflake boxes, they still think of supermarket shopping and library visits as something we all do together . . . And I can’t say yes to spending huge amounts of time doing all the things they’d like me to either. Because they still expect to be fed upwards of 3 times a day and I want them to have clean clothes and a mum who works and exercises to look after herself too, and who maintains a good relationship with their dad!
The number one skill needed by mums? Juggling. Juggling the wants, needs and ‘shoulds’ of ourselves, our children, partners, workplaces, friends and the world! So do, ditch or delegate. Prioritise. Decide. In this way you get to choose the kind of parent that you want to be. If it’s left to chance, the frantic and chaotic forces of untamed family life will shape it for you, and it may not be a pretty shape! You will be very tired if this happens!