My husband and I just returned from a weekend without kids- our first time away in 3 years. I learned two things: I still like my man outside of our parenting partner roles. And I no longer need a break from my kids. (Trust me- the last time we went away I desperately needed the break.) They are so low maintenance and self-sufficient now. This time- I just missed them.
My children are older than yours probably are. I know you’re in the thick of it- where every day feels like you are just barely surviving. Those days are long gone for me: My sons are 15 and 12 and my daughter is 9. I love having older kids- they are interesting conversationalists, super funny, and excellent bathroom cleaners and dog walkers. (Plus they sleep late and eat whatever I put in front of them.) I don’t have to schedule around naps and my man and I can have date nights whenever we want.
BUT I MISS WHEN THEY WERE LITTLE. Terribly. My time as a mother of small children is over. The past few months I have been grieving the end of that part of my life. I look back from here and have regrets.
I know I was a ‘good enough’ mother- I met their emotional and physical needs and then some. (Psychoanalyst D.W. Winicott famously said babies develop most optimally when they have a “good enough” mother.) I have great relationships with all my kids and I think they would tell you I’ve been a great mama.
My regret is for me- not for them. I wonder if I really appreciated the short time my kids were little. I feel I wasn’t as present with them as I would have liked to be. I tried to remind myself that “This is it”- this is my life in this moment- but I know I kept myself too busy as a distraction from what was hard.
Being home with small children can mean days that seem never-ending- the time between breakfast and bedtime can stretch on forever and every day can feel the same. I craved both time alone and adult company. We went on outings and had lots of playdates. (I am thankful there were no smartphones when my kids were little!) Busy was the antidote both to loneliness and to the lack of solitude.
In the monotony of days with small children, it was hard to remember what made me ME. I found meaning in my everyday life by throwing myself into the rituals of domesticity- baking, crafting, sewing, home organizing. (Hey I was even on Martha Stewart when I was pregnant with my third child!) I rotated their toys and set up Montessori-style toy and book shelves. I always had the ultimate to-do list and a day that passed without getting things done was a hard day for me. Yes type-A and perfectionist.
A few years ago we were at a friend’s house on Mother’s Day. When asked to share what they appreciated about me- both my older children said that I cooked good food and cleaned the house. Huh. Those are certainly important things for a mama to do- and I know some day they will look back and recognize that the homemade muffins they took to school every day were a pretty nice touch. I wish I could say at that point that I stopped putting so much energy into my to-do list.
The creativity of these pursuits- and the satisfaction of feeding my family good food- was rewarding and I am happy I did it. AND YET I can see now that being so busy with those things kept me from being as present as I could have been with my children. I did spend lots of time BEING with them- but I think I prioritized things that seem really silly now that I look back.
I think keeping myself so busy on top of the demands of having small children was to avoid the abyss. Having small children was like beading with no knot at the end of the string. There was no sense of accomplishment- other than the fact that everyone was still alive- at the end of the day. Now I see that my time with those humans when they were small was IT. The time with them was the thing but I didn’t realize how fast it would go.
I remember the begging to “stay!” as I tried to get out of the bed after a 20 minute “lie with” at bedtime- so I could have a little bit of an evening. I remember the relief of a playdate invitation so I could have a few hours of solitude. The repeated requests for just one more book. The feeling of being so ‘touched out’ and sleep deprived on top of it. I wish I had stayed. I wish I read the one more book. I wish I had been their playmate. I wish I had known a way to fill my cup so I didn’t feel so depleted.
I’d like you to learn from my regrets. What could I have done differently? What can you do to find balance and feel joy?
- Recognize that the days are long but the years are short. It really does go by so fast. When your toddler just wants to be carried all the time, picture her going away to university. When your baby wakes up 5 times a night, picture him going away to camp for a month. When you feel touched out, picture your teen karate blocking you when you go in for a hug.
- Practice mindfulness. Today I manage anxiety with a breathing practice instead of being over busy. Even 5 minutes a day while you’re with the children can help. Here’s a great example of a practice you can do while you’re with kids and in just a few minutes. Mindfulness has helped me feel settled- it certainly would have helped me with being present with my kids. The abyss of being wanted, needed and exhausted wouldn’t have seemed so daunting.
- Do Special Time. Special time is focussed one-on-one time with your child, doing whatever your child wants to do. I learned about special time from my mentor Laura Markham in my training to become a parenting coach. I put it into practice myself and I always recommend it to the families I work with. I started doing Special Time with my daughter and it has been amazing. She calls it “our game” and it has made us feel so close to each other. I believe if I had played with my children more (which felt so boring, honestly, that I avoided it) and made an effort every day for focussed one-on-one time that was meaningful to them- I would not feel today that I didn’t appreciate the time when they were little.
Today I ‘baby’ my 9 year old as much as I can- and I DO stay when she asks. We do special time every day- and I hope she keeps wanting to do it. With my teen boys- I try to be present and available when they want to show me a video or tell me about what happened at school. I relish the chance for a tuck-in. I savour the unexpected hugs. Late at night when I’m tired and they want to talk- I stay up.
I hope that you will be able to slow down- to realize that This Is It- to not be so busy- while your children are small. I hope that you will use these suggestions to find balance and feel joy NOW. I hope that when they are big you will feel that you appreciated the long days but short years when your children were small.
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 14, 17, and 20). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com