When you’re a parent, discussing parenting is what you do: the easiest way to find out what you have in common – and also to gauge how you’re doing at the parenting gig, and whether you/your kids are normal.
I can’t help but notice a trend among the parents I talk to with young kids – one that contradicts most of social media. If you’re to believe Facebook and Instagram, parenting is about going to the beach, making kick-ass birthday cakes, watching your kids frolic happily, dressing them up all cute, witnessing their endearingly messy faces, and recording their most hilarious soundbites.
In reality, for many of us, parenting is about the little things that are never done and seem to take up ALL THE TIME. Wakeup routines and bedtime routines, endless meals and snacks, potty breaks and body breaks and tantrum-soothing and squabble-mediating and dropping off and picking up and tidying up and laundering and reminding and re-reminding and outright nagging. Somehow, most of the time, Barely Keeping Up feels like all there is.
I don’t believe our social media masks are necessarily disingenuous. If you were to look at my Facebook profile, you’d think my life is all dancing and ukuleles and cute children and animals. Because who really wants to post about their ordinary-but-hectic schedule? More to the point, who makes time for that? We’d all rather look at cakes.
Sometimes I feel like we get that empty jar every day, and for some reason we can only fill it with pebbles, even though we know what the big rocks are, and we want them – and we’re sure everyone else must be fitting in their big rocks, like you’re supposed to.
Now, I’m wondering how many of us are getting any big rocks on a daily basis. There are parents I see as life experts who’ve got it all together… and often, they actually don’t. They are just as frazzled as I am. We all signed up for this parenting gig, and we knew the baby days would be hard, but we sorta thought it would get easier sooner. As in, it’ll be easier when they’re sleeping better… when I go back to work and there’s more routine… when they’re out of diapers… when they get to school… And you’re waiting for the moment when things fall into place. And you’re still waiting… and waiting.
I know there must exist families who are fine, who don’t feel like they’re struggling to keep their heads above water all the time… but I don’t know how this phenomenon is achieved.
Sean and I were talking about this recently, asking ourselves, Does everyone feel this way? Why are so many of us struggling to manage life? Shouldn’t we be able to handle this better? Is it really as hard as it feels?
Banal as it sounds, I think it’s partly “the times.” As a society, we’re in this moment where women having jobs outside the family is normal – which really has not been true for very long. Also, it did not happen that the patriarchs stepped in and switched places to take over the household-running – at least, not in many cases.
Also, in the space of one generation, the cost of housing in Canada has gone from reasonable to… frankly unreasonable. Back when my parents were originally in the housing market, a home was a big expense, but it could be paid off in the foreseeable future, like five to ten years, especially if you had the luxury of two incomes for any of that time. Nowadays, it’s common to be paying off your house for two to three decades – possibly more, if you want to do other things like, for example, send your kids to university. (Which is another expense that has skyrocketed, by the way.)
Of course this means that, for many families, a mortgage is simply not affordable on one salary – especially when so many jobs are unstable, temporary, or just under-compensated. But households still need just as much running as before.
And expectations of parenting are out-of-whack with this scenario. Right now, it’s de rigueur to actually play with your kids (wha??), read to them, snuggle them, do crafts with them, run around with them… unlike the days when you had a gaggle of offspring, let the big ones take care of the little ones, and put them to work as soon as they could carry a hay bale.
Child-rearing in the era of mommy-blogs and Pinterest is now a hobby, an occupation, a science, and an art form. For families with a stay-at-home parent, it’s all the more intense: society seems to accept, and even expect, that the parent will give her whole life to the kids, the household, and the community.
I’m all for playing, snuggling, and reading with your children. I love the kind of direct engagement that lets me get to know my kids as people. But other than family dinners and bedtime stories (which are sacred), these things don’t happen as much as I’d like. (You’ve probably noticed I don’t blog about my beautiful kid-crafts very much. Since I don’t do them.) That’s because the expectations of running a household – making good meals for your family, paying the bills, getting everybody where they need to go on time with the stuff they need, and making sure the house isn’t a constant fracking mess – still apply. And I always feel bad when I fail to keep up with those.
This is another problematic factor. The guilt.
If my kids ask me to play with them and I say no for the sake of housework, I feel guilty. When I do play with them, I feel guilty for “shirking” all the other things that need doing. When I come home from school right away to get some housework done, I feel guilty for not being more on top of my marking at school. When I am doing schoolwork, I feel guilty for the household slack that falls to my husband. When I spend time on email, I feel guilty because it’s such a time-suck – but if I neglect it, I feel guilty because I invariably let someone down. And when I go to the gym, ALL the guilt applies – except for the guilt I feel about wasted money when I don’t go to the gym.
Other things I tend to feel guilty about: letting my kids eat sugar, eating sugar myself, spending money on non-necessities, not taking good enough care of my plants, neglecting my cats, not seeing my friends often enough, forgetting things people I care about have told me… etc. You see how it is.
It’s true for many of us, with kids or not, that “catching up” with life is this mythical thing we never achieve, like getting to Solla Sollew. The tangled cycle of obligations and unease seems neverending.
Now, I’m pretty sure my personal sense of guilt is more finely-honed than many – for myriad reasons. I’m also aware that it’s unhelpful and borderline ridiculous. I certainly hope most people’s brains are less apologetic than mine. Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t reproach myself, because I’m doing my best. (But… am I?? my inner guilt-monitor pipes up.) Unfortunately, guilt is like mosquitoes. You can’t just ask it to go away, and if you swat it, there’s always more where that came from.
I have found that I can fend it off somewhat, as long as I’m doing one of the top three things (parenting, housework, schoolwork) needing immediate attention. But really, I know that neglecting the rest of life isn’t a good idea. Especially when my wishes for 2016 include being more fit and doing more writing. I simply can’t do those things… if I’m not doing them.
So! This month, I devised an approach that I think will motivate me (because I love lists and check boxes and points systems) to make the life I imagine but haven’t managed to prioritize. Sean hammered out a beautiful spreadsheet for each of us that will assign points for things like getting to bed on time, taking vitamins, walking, working out, etc. We can also get points for checking a small job off the to-do list – those annoying little jobs that would only take 10-15 minutes but never get done because they’re never quite urgent enough. And we’ve also assigned points to Writing (in 20-minute slots) and Making Music (in 20-minute slots).
Voilà! INSTANT LEGITIMACY, baby. It’s the key, I know it.
The only trouble is, so far we haven’t managed to get “checking off points chart” on the daily to-do list. But I’m sure it’ll be awesome once we get to it.