This week I had a fascinating conversation with an old friend - who does not have children - about what it means to be “all in” with parenting and family life. Where is the line between prudently managing time and energy, and being selfish and having too many “won’t do that”s. She cited some people in her life who seem stuck because they won't try to improve in certain ways, and refuse to challenge themselves to do more or do better.
My friend and I often find ourselves on opposite ends of these topics, perhaps because I've been a mom for almost 20 years, and that comes with ready-made challenges that the single life doesn't present. Our families were hugely different, too. Over years of parenting, many of the things I didn’t consider important came to seem more important, and many activities I spent time on as a younger mom I’ve scaled back in frequency. I no longer bake every day because no one really cared, and not everything got eaten (girl house!). Now I bake less and clean more.
My friend said that it wasn’t really about the time spent or a specific list, but more about an attitude of willingness to do whatever needs doing, and noticing the needs of people and the environment around you. She thinks her roommate could notice the dishes or trash and "do her part". This seems true for adults, but I said as a mom it doesn’t make sense to meet every need that appears because it’s also important to train kids in practical skills and awareness, which means NOT doing everything - even if time permits.
More fundamentally, it seems that people believe in different amounts of leisure. Is it fair for a retired person to simply enjoy the quiet days, dig in the garden, and visit with friends, and not tutor at the library or watch grandkids? Is it appropriate for a mom to exercise two hours a day as her hobby, as long as the needs of the family are still met? What if she further chose to read an hour or two a day, write letters to friends, make complex meals for the fun of it, walk the dog, and not volunteer or do anything “noble” with the time? What about everything else that “needs to be done” in the community? Or could be done around her house?
Would such a person be lazy, entitled, or worse?
My younger self would have said so; I packed a lot more into my days even as I included fun things for me, and I had more Opinions. Now... I don’t know. I would hesitate to call anyone I know “entitled”, unless most of us are. If I’m judging that they should do more, couldn’t they say the same of me? The women I know who have peaceful days bring calm into their conversations. I've changed my schedule to have fewer items in each day, and less task switching. I take longer stretches of time to do just one thing, which does mean that a bit less gets done. I want to
talk with the girls before they grow up (so soon!). Most days don't feel stressful. It’s not that nothing I do takes effort, but I don't mind when it’s clearly worth doing.
I made the case to my friend that the primary duty was to meet our obligations, but we are often able to choose a simpler set of obligations to meet. Many adults choose just this, with a simpler job that allows more family time, even if the concession is a lower income. I have known cases where this concession seemed excessive, as I’ve known families that said no to most activities and missed opportunities for their children, but there’s a wide latitude to choose the pace of your life. Is it better to read aloud to your kids or paint the house with them? Both. Is it better to play games around the kitchen table or eat a good meal together? Both. No individual, family, or culture can actualize every good thing. We are all making concessions, and we are foolish to tell ourselves a story that ours is The Only Way.
When I was judgier about people who didn’t pitch in and “do their fair share” of whatever, my own little undercurrent of resentment shaped my perspective. I wondered, sometimes, if some of the things I was doing were worth it; of course, I told myself they were, but right in front of me was someone comfortable saying “no” and enjoying the fruits.
If I spent time and energy on something I believed I should do but no one really cared about, I might resent the family’s lack of appreciation. But it's a choice - we can honestly acknowledge that it’s inefficient, unimportant, etc,.. but gives great satisfaction, or we can stop doing it. Or we can assess that something like exercise is worth doing in spite of the inconvenience it might cause the family, and the limited hours in the day, because of the impact on health, mood, etc,...
I have yet to meet a person who says, “I’m sure glad my mom kept a spotless house!” or “She never got a minute’s peace and was burnt out, but I’m glad she was available every second of the day! Where do I sign up for marriage and motherhood?” There are seasons of life that are genuinely nonstop (like crawling babies), and others that are nonstop because we lack clarity about where time and effort go, and how much of it is choice, not necessity.
Kids do take a presentable house for granted, and that takes a certain amount of time. They need to eat, but it doesn’t have to be fancy to keep them alive and healthy. Beyond that, they barely see the extra polish; they remember how they felt in the house. Did people take time to talk, look them in the eye, allow them to help in the kitchen? If you make a 4-course dinner from scratch each night, because that’s what you enjoy, that's fine. Just don’t tell yourself you “have to do it”. It’s a choice, it’s a belief about what life should look like. It’s taste, not morality.
People who describe happy childhoods say things like “My mom was so fun! She played Legos" or "Dad always had time to talk or take me where I needed to go. They taught me how to do play chess, cook, etc,...
Moms regularly revisit what we’re hoping to focus on in the family - reading more, resting, cooking interesting meals, cleaning out the closets. Most days, we do something towards some of the things on the list. Not everything, and not every day. It either gets done, or it falls off the list as not practical or important enough at this time. There’s a humility in the limits of time and energy, and I see why people try to hack their way to less sleep, but there it is. Mortality, every night.
And there's another argument for leaving a little in reserve: stuff happens. Maybe not every day, but people get sick, injured, die, or need a long phone call. You have a tired day or week. The teenager or toddler melts down. There are times when there is no option but to give 110%, and also lots of days when you can give less and everything will be fine. I appreciate those days and savor the easy times differently than when I was in my 20s.
There are still comments - in my own head or from others - that my life looks "too easy", and it's not fair for me to give less than everything every day, since they do. To be clear, this is when the obligations have been met - the house is presentable; everyone was fed, educated, nurtured, and driven to activities, and I have energy to enjoy family time in the evening. Maybe it's true that I'm not "all in". Or is pacing yourself part of being a good mom? Maybe I'm self-indulgent, or maybe it's clarity. Whether I like it or not, the resources are limited, and pacing myself seems the best way to be a peaceful wife and mother.