Reflections on an evening’s play

The other day, something interesting happened.

It was early evening, just after dinner-time for Sam. The sweet hour between the chaos of food being flung about, between shoveled mouthfuls of something hopefully nutritious and repeat episodes of Pepa Pig, and bath time.

Sam was playing on the floor in the living room, and I joined him. As he was busily moving his cars, from floor to couch to floor again, I sat on the floor with him, just watching. It was so enjoyable to simply sit and watch his activity, listen to his chatter, see his lovely face lighting up. One of those timeless moments, when you think: ‘this is it!’ Just being there.

Do you wonder why I singled out this experience? Maybe even question whether I spend enough time with Sam? Perhaps you feel like offering me wise words that good parenting is about being present, in the moment, ‘waiting and watching’. Or that I need to slow down and enjoy the small things, because they don’t last, and children grow up so fast. That I should be grateful for my blessings.

If you did (and trust me, I have been guilty of the same for which I am truly ashamed), I am curious to know why we often jump to these platitudes. And why we feel the need to advise, to chide, or judge.

I am. I am very grateful. Being Sam’s mum is the best thing that has happened to me, hands down. He is my favourite person in the entire world, hands down. My love for him is beyond measure.

But let me tell you what was different about this evening.

Sam had been sick on and off for a month or more – we are right in the thick of the dreaded ‘starting daycare’ germfest. So no daycare for Sam, and no paid work (aka ‘rest’) for me for many days. I have had assessments and exams for my part-time study. I have been squeezing study into every free minute. The day in question was a Monday, when I usually go to work. Sam got conjunctivitis the Friday before, and we decided he would stay at home for a few days. But instead of just automatically taking a sick day while my husband went to work, I asked him to take a day off and care for Sam, and I would take the next day. And he did, and they had a nice day together.

When I was sitting down with Sam at the end of this Monday, I had a day which didn’t start with me frantically trying to get him changed, fed, dressed, while doing same for myself, and corralling him into the car. I just went to work. Then I came back and dinner was already made. So I sat down after my day at work, I was just there to spend time with Sam. I did not have another 10 things on – another run of the washing machine having just spun out and waiting to be hung, the oven beeping at me, the shopping to be ordered or packed away, toys to be picked up, clothes to be folded, dishwasher to be emptied, etc etc etc. I  just relaxed with my gorgeous son and enjoyed his delightful company. I felt truly happy in that moment.

But let’s face it, how often does that happen for mums? The meme doing the rounds on Facebook about what it feels like to be a woman (‘imagine having a browser with 3241 tabs open all the time’) is funny, and sad. Because it is so true.

Something else that has happened recently relates to this. As Sam is making headway into the territory of turning 2 (terrible or terrific?), and gets more dramatic and willful, I asked a general question about this on social media. The responses I received, all well meant and lovely and genuinely trying to help, were so unmistakably divided into 2 camps. Various advice – from friends without kids of their own. And commiseration and reassurance (that it is a stage, and that we can get through it, but need lots of support and breaks) – from other parents.

This, it dawned on me, is what is problematic about assuming all parents need is theoretical advice, and what is hardest to explain to those who are not themselves parents.

Most days so far, I am like my smartphone when it is running on about 10% battery power. Too many applications running, memory card nearly full, all functions soooo sloooow, freezing and stalling. The warning light is flashing that it needs to be recharged, but the charge doesn’t last very long. I am not alone.

From just observing mums running around with their prams, you cannot tell this. The picture looks so rosy. Wouldn’t everyone like to spend their days walking around the park enjoying the fresh air, eating out in cafes, catching up with friends, having playdates, shopping, or just hanging around the house, enjoying time with a bundle of joy?

If this is the image you have of motherhood, you are in fantasyland. The real stuff is brutal. It is not for weaklings. It breaks your back. It makes a calloused mess of your hands. I remember in the early delirious days, going to a shopping centre nearby and taking Sam into one of the parenting rooms, seeing the other mums, and thinking: ‘this is insane. This is the hardest job I have ever done, hands down. Here we all are, doing it. We are all at work here.’

The definition of ‘hard’, or ‘being tired’, changes. Before having Sam, doing something hard always had the proviso that it was time-limited. Doing my PhD was hard, but even though it took a while and took a lot of effort and energy, it was done and I put it behind me. Running uphill is hard, but then you get to sit down, have a cool drink and enjoy the view. Being sick is a nuisance, but you take a sick day, stay in bed with a book and a hot cup of tea, and look after yourself. Doing a difficult task can be hard, but you can try to focus on that one task, and not get distracted. And if you look after kids who are not your own, yes, it is hard, but you hand them back. And have a rest. And go back to your life.

Here is what happens when you are a parent. You can be as sick as you like, but you still get up through the night to feed, you still change nappies, wash bibs and clothes, cook meals, and do your parenting. Yes, your partner will help if you are lucky, but ultimately, you are always on duty. You have just run around the park after an energetic toddler, went to the shops, walked up the stairs lugging the toddler and the shopping, but now you have to feed lunch, and change him, run after him to take his shoes off, wash his hands (if you are lucky), get that phone/wallet/fragile object out of his grasp, hopefully put him to bed, and now shove something in your mouth quickly because you need to cook dinner. Or catch up on some phone-calls or making appointments. Or finally have a shower. Just because you have just run a marathon does not give you the ability to take the rest of the day off. Until the child sleeps. And nights are another shift.

And your attention is always split. Whatever you are doing, you are never just doing one thing – mentally, you are always in at least 2 places at once. Or 5. Or 10.

The reality about mothering (and what I struggle with the most) is that it comes as a package deal with bits that you may not have expected. Housework. Roles around the house and the relationship you may not have thought would be assumed as part of being the stay-at-home parent. Being a mother is not just about giving birth and caring for a child. In theory, biologically, yes. But the social role is a loaded one. As I said to a friend once, we never got a position description for this, and if we did – would we have signed it knowing all it entailed? So no, as much as well-meaning people may tell you that you should just sleep when your baby sleeps, in reality, unless you have means to employ help or willing and able family members and friends who will take over the running of your household, this advice is not going to work out.

So here is what I think about parenting theory.

I love it. I am a huge believer in it. But as much value as there is in parents having an understanding of developmental theory, attachment, and the other wonderful and fascinating literature on bringing a new person into the world, when a parent functions at a significantly reduced physical and mental capacity, the expectation of acting rationally and logically and utilizing whatever theory or great parenting idea, is not only unhelpful, it is unfair towards parents. I read somewhere that long term sleep deprivation and fatigue are equivalent to being drunk, in terms of how our brain functions, our cognitive abilities, concentration, attention and more. You just can’t do it. So reactions may be less than ideal. Tempers may flare. What will end up being done will do, but may not be ideal. But maybe sometimes that’s all that will be possible.

It is election time, and there was something on the news that the government was stalling reforms on childcare subsidies. It made me really mad. What mums need most often is a break. They need quality affordable care for their children, so that they can have some time to rest. Or to do something other than mothering or housework. This was the joke when Sam started daycare and I wasn’t working yet. I spent the first few days scrubbing the kitchen. Because it was so much quicker when Sam wasn’t in the way! Many mums from my mothers group said they did the same thing. And as much as we all laughed at ourselves, it was not really funny.

I hope to have many more moments like I had with Sam. Sometimes it will mean making the effort not to do 1000 things at once. To put aside the mounting laundry or pending assessments. But I will also try to ask for more help, and take some more time for me. Because if I can be more rested, and have some time to enjoy something I used to like doing, I will also definitely be a better mum.

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