Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Hidden Dilemma Of Parenting

I don't mind most of parenting, and there's parts of it I quite like. I'm fond of my kids. Spending time with them, doing stuff with 'em, helping 'em grow and learn: that's all good. And I can hack the obvious downsides: cranky kids, lack of sleep, idiotic fights, nappies and toilet training and all that nonsense.

But there's one element of parenting which is quite insidious, and almost impossible to describe to someone who has not already been a parent for years -- and that's the organisational stuff.

D'you remember what it was like to just clear your schedule? To just kick back, throw off your shoes and let the day take care of itself? To wake up, then roll over and go back to sleep just because you can?

If you don't remember any of that, you're not a parent. You don't remember it because it's not something you bother remembering. It's part of the life of any sane, normal, non-parenting adult. You've got commitments to work and society, probably, yes. And you may have commitments to a relationship. And when those are out of the way, you might even have self-inflicted commitments to fitness and health and hobbies.

But in between, there are little pockets of time you can call your own. You don't have to arrange them. They just happen, because the time you haven't specifically dedicated to other things belongs to you. That's the nature of the universe, right?


I wake up at 0700 every morning. It's not the kids any more. I'm upstairs, and they're quiet enough, and Natalie usually handles the breakfast run. But I wake up anyway, even if I was up to 0130 working - which I was, this morning.

The first thing I think about: what time does Natalie need to be out of the house? And if it's early, then that's it for me -- I'm up, out of bed, dressed, and downstairs to make lunches and take the reins for the day. If Natalie has a bit of time up her sleeve, though, I may try snoozing until 0730. But it's not a 'natural right': it's a careful, considered decision, no matter how tired I may be.

And my entire day, every day: where do the kids need to be? How long will they be there? What do I have to organise for the morning/afternoon/evening/night? How do I fit my personal work and household duties around what the kids are doing?

Even as I write this, I'm on the clock. I've been checking my email. I've already cleaned up after breakfast, and dispatched the daughter with Neighbour Anna off to daycare. Meanwhile, one of Neighbour Anna's kids is here with the boys. They have another forty minutes of playtime before I load them into the car and we go to Launceston so they can do the gymnastics thing. That's another thirty minutes I can have here -- or anywhere else I need to be -- before I have to start packing, organising, and chivvying kids.

And so it goes, the rest of the day. The kids will be done with gym by a quarter of twelve. I'll need to organise a lunch for them. There are a few errands to run in Launceston. Then when we get back, they'll have another hour or so to play before the daughter gets returned... which means I'd better do a bit of grocery shopping in Launceston to prep for dinner. And Natalie may or may not be on call tonight... must check. And I need to run the pump, too, so I'd better bring the fuel bottle and get some petrol.

Now, the insidious thing about this is that there are no breaks, no holidays to speak of. If you've got a compassionate partner, you get some down time and some alone time -- but it always, always has to be planned and set up, and so whenever you've got some of that precious downtime coming to you, inevitably you plan things for it.

You remember what it was like just to spontaneously throw all your plans out the window for a day? I do -- at least, I think I do. Random road-trips with unexpectedly arriving friends. Days where I got caught up in the gravity well of somebody's back deck, lazy in the sun with beer and backyard cricket.

Sure, I can still have beer on the deck and backyard cricket: but the time has to be allotted and planned for. There's no point where I can simply go yeah, fuck it, the rest of the day will take care of itself, man -- because it simply will not take care of itself.

It gets into your head.

On Wednesday, Natalie unexpectedly agreed to handle dinner. Neighbour Anna took the boys to gym, and then kept 'em at her place for the afternoon to play. The Mau-Mau was at daycare. And Natalie went on a bike ride.

I was left alone, in an unplanned window. It fair did in my bloody head.

First I thought I'd write, but I kept zoning out - thoughts of dinner and errands kept cropping up, interrupting me. Unplanned time to write? That doesn't happen, does it? Must be something else you have to do.

So I thought I'd hit the garden. And I did a bit of hoeing and weeding, but the whole time, I had this feeling that I was skipping out on something - that I'd forgotten some vital matter. It was creepy as hell. I'd find myself stopping in mid-work, trying to remember, trying to recall... and then I'd realise that no, no... the time was mine. I didn't have to prepare for dinner, or go shopping or anything. I could choose to do what I wanted.

Most of the afternoon, I drifted badly. One task to another. I didn't achieve much. I was pretty tired - long night beforehand - so I tried napping, but I kept waking up from dreams where I'd lost or forgotten stuff. And come dinnertime, with Natalie making sushi, I was jittery, nervy... it felt wrong.

Planned. Everything is planned, even if only loosely, in terms of time. Spontaneous trip down an interesting side-road? Only if you know you'll get home in time for feeding and bathing and all that stuff. Random trip to the beach? Oh, that's not random: first you have to make sure the doctor's schedule is cleared. Then you've got to consider how long the kids will be able to deal with the place. And you absolutely have to make plans for food, and shade, and sunscreen, towels and changes of clothes, and what do you say when the boys want to invite a friend?

It's all planned. Not minute-by-minute, no, but definitely bloc by bloc, with certain fixed points occurring 'most every day, like known rocks or reefs to be navigated. And even when you do get time out, down-time, unplanned time, there's always the certain knowledge that it's going to end. You know to the day, the hour, the minute when you're due to resume your duties, and everything you do is calculated to fit into that window of 'open time'.

It isn't your life any more. Like a classy thief in a complicated heist movie, you plan everything to perfection so you can steal back precious jewels of time to call your own.

This is the bit I can't explain properly - the bit every parent will understand innately, but virtually nobody else will truly feel. It really isn't your life any more. The 'default setting' to which you revert is no longer that of 'single or paired adult'. It is now 'parent', and that means no rolling over and going back to sleep without careful decision-making: not now, nor for the next fourteen or fifteen years.

I wish, just once, I could remember properly what it felt like to be bored and aimless, at a loose end.


  1. Struck a chord for me. The only 'self' time I can get is either very early in the morning - which ain't working for me - or very late at night, in which case you're having to make a conscious decision as to whether you want time to yourself, or whether you want to get enough sleep to function properly. In the time budget, 'self' time is always the first to become dispensible.

  2. I habitually fill my time with hobby stuff. It's not as important as childrasing, but it's what I like. My recent illness has thrown me back into the surrealness of having spare time AND no capacity to do anything within that spare time. Also very weird.

    Writing Note- the extensive use of double negatives in the fourth paragraph made the text a little unwieldy. Usually your writing style is VERY clean, that phrasing lost me. That normally never happens with your writing. I mean, I nutted it out, but usually never have to.

  3. I do understand that parenting is a life-changing event, but I am so tired of being told all the time that "you'll understand when you have kids someday" or "you just don't really know until you have a child of your own."

    It's condescending and makes me feel like everything I am in my life, and everything I do in my life, is not worthwhile because I'm not a parent.

  4. Yeah, Bartski -- the double-negative stuff was a choice. It was meant to slow the reader down and make you think about it. I can put this stuff into words, but it's such an unexpected, visceral, deep-down change that if I write about it cleanly and easily, it won't convey just how goddam insidious it is.

    There were probably better ways of handling it. And I thank you very kindly for taking the time to mention it, sir!

    Jen: I don't think there's anything condescending in there. At least, I hope not. I'm certainly not trying to imply that what other people are doing is not worthwhile. I'm simply exploring my own recent realisation that something really deep in my own psyche and my own life has altered at a very fundamental level.

    Personally? I'd say unless you're bound and determined to have kids, stay single and free. Kids are great, but you can always Auntie for someone else at will. The parents in question will be pathetically grateful. The kids will be delighted to interact with someone outside their immediate family, and you can be just as parental as you want... until you want to stop.

    But as for not understanding... well, Bart's just expressed his own personal surprise at something which is only a minute fraction of the situation presented by parenting. And I've already had two good friends (and non-parents) elsewhere say they've never really thought about it this way.

    I dunno. Maybe in the military? Or not. Sure, they take up your time, but they think for you, too.

    I've never seen anything like it, really. It's literally as described: the default setting on the time that passes you is no longer "yours". It becomes "yours" only when you specifically and carefully plan it that way, and then only for limited periods.

    One can decide, every morning, whether one is going to continue to be employed, consequences or not. But one can't get up and say: "Nope. I'm not a parent any more," short of murder. You can walk away from it, sure -- if you have that in you. (I couldn't.) But even then, it's not that you're no longer a parent. You're just a bad parent.

  5. I tried sharing my views as a parent coming out the other side but I just don't have your way with words so I deleted. What I was trying to say is that it happens so slowly you barely notice but I've become almost redundant for the day to day stuff and I miss it. I'm happy I have a kid with with a clear direction and the motivation to get there but I feel a little left behind...time to get back to me I guess.

  6. Don't mean to one-up or white-ant Bart but I thought the double neg emphasis thing worked fine. Then again my writing style's pretty contrived at the best of times so maybe I'm not the best judge.

    As regards Jen's comment - the thing is, it's not about trying to demonstrate or send a message that parenthood is better than non-parenthood. Non parents maybe think it's all about them because they CAN think it's all about them. Parents don't get that opportunity. It's not condescending, it's fact. You don't know because you can not know. It's not like having a pet and it's not like sitting other people's kids. Parenthood is different, not necessarily better, than nonparenthood. And what it is is non-negotiable. No off days and no calling in sick. I think it's this sudden and irrevocable transition to 100% commitment that takes first time parents by surprise to such an extent that they tend to barrage their nonparental friends with large amounts of unsolicited information. And this is usually dressed up positively, because noone likes talking about the awful parts of parenting - right from postnatal depression to dealing with your kids getting bullied to no longer having anything like the relationship you once had with your partner.

  7. Testify, Brutha Yobbo! Testify! Amen!

  8. They say you never know real fear until you're a parent. In that respect, I understand how you are never off the clock. Once they are in school though, I don't see how any unemployed stay at home parent could not find the time to decompress and have a little fun. My siblings and I left for school at 730 and didn't get home until 330. If I was on a team, I didn't get home until 6pm. That's at least 8 hours and sometimes 10.5 for 9 months out of the year. That's alot of time to clean house and run errands. My mom and most of her friends eventually took part time jobs or volunteered.

  9. I recall a few years ago, in the gap after ES had arrived and before young Thomas had arrived, when you visited Jane and I in CBR. We stuck you in front of a dvd (BlackBooks as I recall) and set about providing drinks and prepping dinner.

    It was well into the 2nd if not 3rd episode before you were able to stop turning away every few moments because either it was too quiet (and quiet makes parents nervous) or because you had momentarily forgotten that there wasn't anything that *you* needed to be doing.

    Amusing at the time, but now with 2 shorties of my own, I well understand.

  10. Oh, and Mercer: I'm only unemployed in the sense that any working writer who instructs in martial arts and spends a couple days a week working with his kids on their education unemployed. And I have to admit that fifty rural acres makes for a subset of 'errands' that I wasn't accustomed to in my city life. It's the fencing that I really hate, but the chainsaw work takes a bite of time, and it's hard to hurry a tractor and a slasher...

  11. Really, really interesting. It's thoughts like these that make me apprehensive about children. I'm a pretty selfish person, really. I get worked up about things and need time to be angry and self-indulgent about them. How do you do THAT with kids? ;)

    But I wonder perhaps if people go from being "parents" to "bad parents" is where they don't make that fundamental change you are talking about? When they refuse to accept the 100% commitment of the first 13 or 14 years or so?

    No idea really, just pondering... :)

  12. We recently had an old friend with no kids visit and it did feel a bit surreal talking to her. There was all this talk about taking two months and spending them in Hawai'i and generally just up and doing things for the hell of it. Wow. We used to do stuff like that. I think. And she certainly didn't have the least conception of "be ready to leave at any moment because once the spawn is in a pliant frame of mind, we're out of here so fast your head will spin." The spawn is great fun when she's not being a little pill, but would I do it all over again...I just don't know.

  13. Sue! Welcome to the Maelstrom (sorry about the lack of umlauts there.) You might want to take a look at the list of blogs down the right-hand-side, over there: I think you'll find one or two that may be of interest. Particularly the World Tree chap.

    Girl Clumsy: nobody's perfect, even as a parent. You still get cranky. But if you're smart, and thoughtful, you don't let that affect the way you deal with your children, except where it actually helps. Sometimes they need to know you're pissed off. That doesn't imply beating the snot out of them, but it does imply a sharp voice and a swift escort to the 'time-out zone' under the stairs.

    As for self-indulgence... aha. Well. Like I said: you plan, and you set aside some time in which you can be self-indulgent.

    And Jen - I have indeed worked out another category of people who might understand innately what I'm talking about. That would be sole carers - people like my Aunt Peg, who spent more than a decade looking after her mother (my grandmum) after grandmum developed ALS and became increasingly immobile and dependent.

    I think people in that position would be equipped to know very well what I mean by the absolute shift in priorities, and the absolute loss of "loose time as a property of your own life". I also suspect that they wouldn't have nearly as much fun as parents, because there are times when kids are really cool to have around.

  14. Dirk

    Then once the kiddies have grown to become young adults and you find you have some time to yourself ....

    "Hey Mum and Dad your going to be grandparents"

    and the cycle renews (slightly differnt but just as complicated).

  15. Apolgies for bad grammer and typos

  16. I'm planning to use the Early-Onset Alzheimer's Ploy: "What's that? Who? Do I know you, kid?"

  17. Flinto - just image how disturbing it would be when a relationship breaks up and one parent has all the organisation and the second-and-third-thoughts that go with it, but no one to spend it on...

    And we wonder why some parents go sumo loco clocktower bang-bang after their kids are taken away.

  18. God, this is so bloody true. I had a moment when this hit me, a couple of years back. I'd wangled a five day pass away tramping in Nelson Lakes (Dr Yobbo will know where that is) and when finiished I had to wait five hours for the shuttle to pick me up.

    And it was sheer bloody luxury. Back in 'the day' I'd have been frustrated at that amount of time just hanging around, not getting anywhere But it was sheer bliss. I re-read a Flashman book, dozed in the sun.

    I've got a wife with a long term illness and we have a special needs daughter, so when I'm home I'm 'on' the whole time. And I'm bloody lousy at the organisational side of things (I'm a journalist, for god's sake) so I have to really concentrate on that aspect of life. Fortunately the Better Half is very good at it, even with her illness.

  19. Matthew: Natalie often looks at the kids and I doing our thing together and says "I have no idea how I'd manage this kind of thing if you weren't here."

    And Rob? Solidarity, brother. (And Flashman's a good read, no? You should try "The Pyrates", by the same author. If you can find it, that is. Balls-out hilarious.)

  20. Cheers. Will look up 'Pyrates' - our local library has it.