I have been an at-home parent for the last six years, and during that time, I have struggled to find an identity beyond parenthood. There have been many stories in the press lately about work-life balance – usually about professionals who are trying to find ways to cut back their work schedules to make time to care for children and aging parents. I rarely see any stories about those of us whose balance has tipped in the other direction, those of us who spend most of our time caring for others and need to connect to a world beyond diapers, play dates, and doctor visits.
There is no question that an at-home parent could spend every waking moment on food preparation, laundry, cleaning, and everything related to childcare. I could spend hours poring over cookbooks and websites planning 21 healthy and tasty meals each week, then shop for local, organic ingredients, and then lovingly prepare the food. I could sweep up the crumbs after every meal and vacuum the house every evening. I could spend every moment I’m with the boys engaged in some sort of educational activity that is developing their executive function or social IQ.
I’ve certainly gone through stages when I have tried to be this seemingly “perfect” parent. I made the decision to sacrifice my education, my career, my ambition, and my identity to be at home with my kids, so I had better be the most engaged, most knowledgeable, and most skilled parent in the neighborhood.
At some point along the way though, my thinking changed. I enjoy being with my kids, but I’ve recognized that it’s not good for me or for them to have 100% of my time and focus on their well-being. I want my children to feel safe, connected, and loved, but not coddled, sheltered, and smothered. I also want my children to see a parent that that has a life beyond parenting — interests and talents beyond folding laundry, making macaroni and cheese, and building fortresses with blocks.
So, starting with the premise that I wanted balance, both for myself and for my family, I started to think about what needed to give. In every household, there are tasks that need to get done, but if you want to create more time for life beyond parenthood, you need to give yourself permission to open up your schedule. Here are some questions to consider:
- What needs to get done and what is good enough? In my house my family needs to eat healthy meals, we need clean clothes, and it’s nice when our house is reasonably clean. I enjoy cooking, but pasta and tomato sauce with a side of carrots is gourmet enough for a five-year old and a two-year old. I enjoy playing with my kids, but it’s also good for them to play by themselves. I don’t mind doing laundry, but for me I’d rather do it all in one marathon session than spread it out over the week.
- Who gets the work done? Consider whether you are taking full advantage of the people in your life that are offering to help? Are you open to having your partner help, or are you pushing him/her away? Can you lean on family? Can you afford a daytime babysitter for a few hours during the week? I also have taken the time to train the kids to do some of the work. It could be me that makes beds, puts toys away, hangs up coats, etc., but I’d rather they do the work, even if it’s not perfect.
- When does the work get done? I have two hours, five days per week when both my sons are in school. I could use that time to do laundry, to clean, or to cook dinner, but I’d rather use this quiet time to accomplish something that actually requires focus and quiet (such as writing this blog entry). I can do laundry at night while we are watching TV. I can cook while the kids are playing in the afternoons.
Don’t get me wrong, none if this is easy, and the train can run off the rails at any moment. My best suggestion this holiday season, give yourself permission to enjoy life beyond parenting — find your identity beyond caregiver, both for yourself, and for your family.