Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Busiest Mom Wins

When my kids were just starting school, I noticed my neighbor had her children pack their own lunches. Inspired, I followed suit. My kids sometimes packed pretty weird lunches, and some days they didn't remember to pack quite enough to keep them full, but they learned. They managed. I made them do their own laundry, too: my mom hadn't done ours for us, so it seemed natural to me to teach mine this and other habits of independence very early on. Then I moved to another city and my new neighbors were shocked at what my kids did for themselves. Not in a good way, either. "Now, I just don't understand why you make them do all that," said one. "What's the point of you, then?"

What was the point of me?

The point of that mom, apparently, was to be a domestic servant, with her children as lords of the manor. Here I'd been thinking the point of me was to be a teacher. While this particular mom stated it in fairly black-and-white terms, the general mom-consensus seemed to be that the better parents were the ones who were seen doing more for their children. Not in the sense of teaching independence, but in the sense of staying conspicuously busy on behalf of their kids: volunteering for kid-related fundraisers, managing homework, being the room mom, driving their kids to the most extracurricular activities, attending every school field trip, and bringing the best halftime snacks. (No sliced oranges for these moms! Homemade organic flaxseed-coconut bars and hand-juiced pomegranate-mango drink-stuff.)

I'm not merely an observer of this phenomenon, I'm part of it: I'm a team parent, the vice-president of a youth symphony parent board, a baker of brownies, a chaperone for trips to the planetarium. Last fall, I overcommitted to volunteer activities and wound up exhausted, stressed out, and even injured after I'd spend one weekend loading too much heavy equipment and supplies into trucks. At night I was occasionally tearful, sick to my stomach at the thought of what I was expected to accomplish the following week. My exasperated husband asked me why I didn't simply quit (I was a volunteer, after all) but that hardly seemed an option. People were already depending on me, for one thing; for another, how would that look?

Keeping up with the busy-busy Joneses isn't the only reason to volunteer. Teachers, soccer coaches, and marching-band directors really do depend on volunteer help, and of course that's behind a lot of volunteerism: it's not all an attempt to win Parent of the Year. But it is worth acknowledging the spiraling trap of competitive busyness so many of us are sucked into.

"We all feel like we’re not doing enough for our children, so in our guilt, we do, do, do, and overdo: more lessons, more teams, more sports, bigger birthday parties, more educational outings," writes Rebecca J Rosen, in this piece for the Atlantic magazine. "And we all feed off each other—particularly as we look to the future, see a changing global economy and so much uncertainty about what 'success' will look like. There’s so much fear and we’re so worried that our kids will somehow be left out, or left behind. That’s part of what fuels the craziness of the parenting merry go round."

The other part, she writes, comes from fear of being perceived as lazy by other parents. The only acceptable response to "What have you been up to lately?" is a list of activities, followed by a sigh that indicates it's all too much. The other person is then invited to one-up the speaker with her own list, which is just slightly longer. Nobody ever says, "I really haven't been doing much." That's partly because we rarely indulge in (or find) leisure time, and that's partly because it's not an acceptable thing to say. I tried that once, during a slow week, and was met with a shocked silence, then anger. "Good for you," my acquaintance said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Must be nice." She then got the conversation back on its proper track by regaling me with her war stories, ending with a triumphant, "I am just so overwhelmed! Gotta go do more, 'bye!"

"That’s when it hit me—how we sometimes create busyness in order to conform to this social ideal, that to be worthy is to be busy," Rosen writes. "I don’t say this to blame people. I do it, too. But the only way to change it, if we don’t like it, is to first be aware of it, be aware of our that urge to conform, to be worthy, to be enough, drives us sometimes unconsciously."

There are multiple solutions. The first is to realize that part of parenting is to let go and do less. With every year that passes, our children should be taking on more and more responsibilities, so that when they finally are launched into the world, they have the confidence and skills to take care of themselves. They can do their own laundry, clean a bathroom, fill a car with gasoline, write a check, cook a decent meal. Recognize that your children will not require therapy if you don't attend every musical performance or soccer match: you don't have to be their permanent, adoring audience for them to know they are loved.

The second piece of the puzzle I'm working on is to recognize when I'm adding items to my schedule for bad reasons: if I catch myself worrying I'll be seen as shirking if I don't take on a project, I know that's a bad reason to say yes. After the debacle of last fall, I'm going to try to stick to volunteer work that's truly necessary or enjoyable. A third piece I'm getting better at is scheduling in leisure time as assiduously as I do work time. On our family schedule, we have a block of time set aside to do a weekly hike together. Some weekends it gets pre-empted, but most weeks we do it. If it wasn't on the schedule, I'm sure that time would get filled up with something else. Our evenings are also precious to us: while my kids have the usual extracurriculars nosing in on our together time, we say no as often as possible to optional stuff. We stay home, we curl up on the couch, and we do nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Go ahead: call me lazy. I think I can live with that.


  1. "With every year that passes, our children should be taking on more and more responsibilities, so that when they finally are launched into the world, they have the confidence and skills to take care of themselves. They can do their own laundry, clean a bathroom, fill a car with gasoline, write a check, cook a decent meal."

    Yes times a jillion on this. It's one of the reasons I look forward to my daughter getting older; I want to see her develop into an independent person but on a selfish level I know I'll weep tears of joy the first time she gets up, makes herself some breakfast and lets us sleep in a little bit. It's going to be glorious.

    1. That truly is a glorious development. Shouldn't be too long now!

  2. What a great article, Steph!

    I had to laugh at the moms with the complicated snacks because it reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons where Marge just couldn't please her mom's circle.

    I think you're completely right when you say that in this society busy is perceived as worthy. It's so true, both acquaintance and friends I meet seem obligated by law to tell me how busy they are. I made the same mistake you did last fall by enrolling my kids in several extracurricular activities. I was so exhausted and busy I hardly had any time to write (that is a guilty pleasure that comes after the "important" chores) but worse yet I even forgot to take my kid to his guitar lesson once! That's when I realized it was too much. This spring I only kept one activity for each and I'm really enjoying the stress-free afternoons.

    1. It's freeing, isn't it? My husband is always coming up with new and exciting hobbies he thinks our son should take up (guitar lessons, in fact, is one) and I'm usually the one who has to break it to him that as the chauffeur, I'm not willing. Also, that boy already has enough on his plate! It's hard to say no, though. There's so much out there and it seems like so many kids do it all.

  3. I'm so proud of you!! And I hate to say it, but you sound like mini me. Teaching our kids to be responsible, kind and good people is our number one job as parents. It's not always the easiest road to take but you are proof that it works.

  4. I only enroll little one in one EC activity at a time. Sometimes *gasp* none. And I felt relieved when she started to ask to eat the apple with just a rinse instead of slicing the sucker up so that gives you an idea of my stance on 'Homemade organic flaxseed-coconut bars and hand-juiced pomegranate-mango drink-stuff.' I have zero problem giving the big middle finger to busyness. The main thing I want to pass on to my child are critical thinking skills, for which I'm constantly on a learning curve. :P Quite frankly, she teaches me as much as I teach her. The other main thing I want to pass on to her is sense of humor. Oh, and affection. That kid gets more hugs (when she asks for them--I *try* not to be smother mother) than all five of us (sibs) got together!

    Btw, the question, 'What is the point of you?' is quite obviously a reflection of the one posing it. But I LOVE your answer.

    1. Your daughter is lucky to have you as a mom, and I know firsthand that she's already got your (excellent) sense of humor. She has a real twinkle in her eye, that one!


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