I read and enjoyed a great book last year called The Meaning of Wife that explored things like the wedding industrial complex and the history of female ownership, among other topics. One idea from the book that jumped out was that while most women want to be a bride, fewer and fewer of us want to be a wife. ‘Bride’ makes us think of princesses and fairy tales and romance. ‘Wife’ brings up thoughts of emotional labour , domesticity, and being in the background.
This reminded me of parenting: of course we want to have kids and would never trade them for the world. But how many of us actually want to be parents?
When most of us imagine having kids, we think they will make life more meaningful, more fun, more filled with joy and closeness. We fantasize about the GOOD parts. But parenting is a life-long project that feels like a chore much of the time. It’s needing endless patience and paying monstrous grocery bills and constantly juggling to solve multiple problems.
Of course, neither of these roles (bride/wife; have kids/be a parent) are the dichotomies I describe above. Both are more inspiring, more heart-breaking, and more complex than words can easily explain.
But admit it – before you became a parent you probably didn’t fantasize about yelling at your child to get off his phone or daydream about your teenager screaming that she hates you. Yet that’s how it goes! You may have thought that kind of stuff only happens to other people; that somehow you wouldn’t have those difficulties. What fools we were…
Truthfully, both parenting and marriage are relationship work. They require emotional intelligence and emotional fortitude. I talked with a dad the other day who told me, “the sleepless nights, long hours, and never getting a day off of parenting aren’t really the problem. But it becomes impossible to maintain a cheerful attitude and mental presence or make important decisions after that kind of physical ordeal goes on for a few weeks. And parenting goes on for YEARS!”
That dad nailed the problem.
Relationship work requires that we consistently pay attention to our self and the other person. Our self-awareness must grow year after year along with our teenager’s shoe size.
Most of us have 3 jobs as parents:
- manage the endless to-do list (driving, laundry, shopping, daily crises, school, holidays, sports, schedules, meals, lessons, bedtimes, etc.)
- nurture your relationship with your teen
- bring in enough cash to make the whole machine run
How does a person juggle those 3 massive jobs? Some say that parenting sucks the life right out of you, and drops your happiness score in the toilet. The stress and rush of family life is a major social issue.
Other folks only see their parenting in terms of the first and third job. That’s how I was raised.
Moms and dads tell me these are the times they don’t enjoy being parents:
- when they feel overworked
- when they feel under-appreciated
- when they run out of ideas/ are unable to generate creative solutions
- when they feel powerless to make changes in their families
- when they are sleep-deprived
- when they are fun-deprived
- when they are growth/enrichment-deprived
So how can we enjoy having kids AND enjoy being parents?
We need to design our lives to hit the 3 jobs and avoid the 7 traps above as much as possible. And then continue to customize the set-up as kids grow and circumstances evolve.
It’s much easier to relax with our teenagers and stay on top of the workload when we feel personally nourished and rested and aren’t worried about paying the rent.
Sadly, parents are up against an economic system that can sometimes grind up even the most hearty adult. Imagine if you didn’t have to work all 3 jobs, or only had to work them part-time. What a difference that can make. Here’s the situation according to Patty Wipfler:
Work that creates profit is made to seem far more important than the work we do to create closeness and caring with the people we live with. Nurturing children, caring for those whose needs are great, and fostering community are activities that are threatened by the forces that draw men and women into paid work over long hours. It is in the interests of profit-makers to involve as many people as possible in paid work. Workers make the profits that increase the wealth of a few.
The consumer-corporate scheme lives and breathes off the movement of money. Yet what price can we put on childhood? On late night heart-to-hearts? On family time in nature?
What you can do:
- Explain the situation and give accurate information.Tell your teen how you trade your time for money, and about how you make those decisions. Talk about your values, and how it is more important to you that you have money to enrol your kid in swim club than pay for cable TV. Explain what you are prepared to pay for (band camp?) and what you aren’t (custom hair dying?) and why.
- Live your values. If you say to your teen, ‘family comes first’ but you spend all your free time tinkering in the garage or scrapbooking, maybe it’s time to ask yourself why your actions are incongruent with your words. If you do free activities close to home all summer because you want to spend your savings on winter ski vacations, have at it. Teenagers will see you demonstrating your values through your actions.
- Create regular special time with your teenager. Weekend brunch or trips to the mall. Maybe playing video games is something you both enjoy, or hiking. Relationships need space and time to happen. Closeness does not grow or last if it’s crammed into a car ride to track practice or raking the lawn together twice a year. If your teen thinks spending time with you is dumb be stealthy about hanging around her/him with conscious awareness and your ears ready to listen.
- Only work for as much money as you need. Reflect honestly on the difference between wanting and needing. Your teen NEEDS emotional support; s/he WANTS designer jeans. Same goes for you. Consider how you and your parenting partner (if you have one) can work together and not at cross-purposes to finance a rational lifestyle. This fine article does a lovely job of detailing the not-so-lovely modern struggle for parents: “The central conflict of domestic life right now isn’t men versus women or mothers versus fathers; it’s the family against money.”
- Buy your time back. Is self-care more important than doing yard work? Ditch the yard, get zero-maintenance landscaping, or pay someone else to take care of it. Do you treasure family meal time but lack the time to prepare a meal? Find or create a more convenient option that is right for you. Less clothing and a smaller home translate to less time on laundry and housework.
- Share the load. Model justice for your teenagers by getting chores done together, deciding as a family about household priorities, and practicing collaborative household management. Negotiate with your parenting partner about how to make things fair. Understand that your teenager faces a great deal of their own pressures.
In my almost-20 years of parenting I have had dozens of different arrangements in order to maximize the time I had to build my relationship with The Boy and meet our basic needs. This includes over 30 different jobs, living with friends, doing childcare swaps, having roommates, being carless at times, various types of co-parenting, accepting help from family and friends, paying a neighbour to cook for me, and generally prioritizing people and learning over having stuff.
Don’t just love your teen, actually love parenting.