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.