(Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my job).
First off, it has been very affirming to get some feedback from folks who have appreciated my honesty of late, so thank you if you have liked, commented or sent a message following my myriad emotional outpourings. I am grateful to know that I am not talking into the abyss.
And while I am absolutely an advocate for sharing the less than stellar times (aka the reality of life as a stay at home parent), it has also always been my mission to share the good as well. Not the sanitised, Pinterest friendly version, but the ‘here’s how I not only survive, but enjoy my time at home with my kids’. Because at the end of the day, I do choose to do this, so it has to work for not just our children, but for me and my mental health as well.
This year has had its many ups and downs as I have tried to figure that out. The first few months were absolutely lived in survival mode. We get through the day, we keep everyone alive, we try not to lose our patience (okay, perhaps that one was just me). But lately I have found a nice groove again, and have had not just moments, but entire days, that have been just that, enjoyable.
So here are some things that I did to get me there.
1. Find a rhythm. One of the hardest things about having a newborn (apart from feeling as if your eyes are constantly full of sand and you’re surviving on microwaved cups of instant coffee) is the lack of routine. The first time around I just kind of went with it, wore the baby in the sling a lot and went about my business. The second time, because I was also trying to create a sense of order for my two year old, it was hard to know when were the best times to go to the park, or to get an activity out, so we ended up staying in a lot and I found it very frustrating. At around six to eight months, we had a breakthrough as #2 consolidated his naps into a chunky morning sleep, and a short afternoon one. This meant that we could stay in during the morning and I would have time while both kids were awake to do chores (often with the baby in one arm or on the floor right next to me), then once the baby was napping i would focus on the toddler / get some baby unfriendly stuff out (paint, baking, books that you don’t want eaten), and then after lunch we’d all go out somewhere. This has remained the loose ‘rhythm’ of our day ever since, and it not only keeps me sane, but allows me to plan to meet friends in advance, as well as getting everything done that I need to at home. I’m not saying this same routine would work for everyone, but I think it helps immeasurably, especially if you’re finding life at home overwhelming, to have predictability, guaranteed time out of the house every day and sense that you are able to get shit done you know?
2. Do what you like. This probably sounds ridiculous, but it took me a really long time to figure out that I don’t like going to toddler groups. Actually, save for my own and those of my friends, I don’t really like hanging out with small children much at all, probably because
I’m a monster it feels too much like work. But despite this, for the longest time, I kept dragging myself along to them, because that’s what stay at home Mum’s of toddlers do right? They go to toddler groups. But you know what? Fuck that shit. One of the only perks of being at home is that you are your own boss (the tiny dictators not withstanding), and you get to do what you like. I like, it transpires, taking my kids swimming. I really, really love it, so we do that as much as we can. I like meeting my other Mum friends and drinking coffee and talking about important issues (my hot new dentist), while ignoring our children (in order to foster independent play, obviously), and occasionally chucking them some fruit to keep them happy. So I do that too. I also like going to the farm and reading books at the children’s library and going to some really good outdoor playgrounds (even better when it’s kind of drizzly, so there are minimum other children there). I do not go to toddler groups. This has significantly improved my life.
3. Ignore the advice. I say this with the best will in the world, because I know people mean well, but the advice that you will receive most frequently when you have a baby is, in no particular order, to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps!’, ‘just leave the housework!’, ‘don’t worry about achieving anything!’. Which, yes, that’s a lovely sentiment, and I thank you for not judging my dirty floors, but, OH MY GOD I’M GOING NUTS ALREADY, IF MY HOUSE IS A SHIT TIP I WILL ONLY FEEL WORSE! (or something less OCD sounding).
I was talking to my friend who is a teacher a week or so back and I asked her if she is able to do any less than we used to do when we worked together, and were working long hours and taking on more and more extra roles. ‘No’, she said, ‘Because I’ve realised that I can’t do a bad job, I can’t let myself get away with just doing the bare minimum’, and I was like, woah, lightbulb, yes, that is me (thank you Anna, for the epiphany). I cannot just sit still and do nothing. Especially if the house is a mess, or there is a meal to be prepared for later, or I can be reorganising a freaking sock drawer (I kid you not, I did this today). Yes, I would probably be more relaxed if I did, but I do not do ‘the bare minimum’. And rather than fighting this, it has helped enormously to acknowledge that if my house is clean and in reasonable order, and I’ve spent some quality time with my children, and ‘have achieved something’, that I actually feel better. Tireder, but better.
4. Your presence is enough. That said, this excellent article by Janet Lansbury, made me realise that actually, sitting and doing nothing is sometimes incredibly valuable for your children. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to spending time with the Mancub while his baby brother naps.
I used to feel as if I should make this real quality time, which for me meant to get a special activity out that we wouldn’t be able to do with the baby around. I would suggest painting, or sticking, or going outside, baking. Which are all valid things to do with your preschooler, but were very much led and instigated by me, because we had this fixed slot of time in which to ‘do something fun!’ and if I didn’t do that, I would feel as if I was slacking, or somehow letting him down.
But of course, this wasn’t about him, it was about me, and my afore mentioned desire to never sit still for a single second. And actually, he wasn’t always that into it. So instead, when the baby was asleep, I began just going and sitting next to him, whatever he was doing. Often he would be listening to CDs at his table in the lounge, so I would go and sit quietly on the sofa and wait for him to take the lead. Within minutes he would come over and every day the outcome would be different. Sometimes he would want to do some imaginary play based on his CD, or his current interest, so I would be handed an oar and asked to go somewhere with him on his boat, or I would become an animal stealing fruit from his basket. Sometimes he would bring me a book to read, or one of his sticker albums to go through with him. Sometimes we would just cuddle up for a bit. Nothing, and yet everything. What a game changer. Now I make sure that the first thing I do is just sit with him, and see where that takes us.
There we are, some really obvious truths that it took me months to uncover: that days are better when you have a sense of order, when you do the things you love, when you put your all into them, but leave a little room for flexibility and the imagination of a small child.
Not every day is good. Not every day is full of smiles. But earlier in the year I got to a point where I felt like I was coping again, and it feels good to finally be going beyond that.