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Posts tagged ‘parental stress’

Being a Parent versus Parenting

Dear Lochlan,

I’m sorry. Sometimes I feel as if I’m failing you. My personal struggles have a way of seeping into our life together. I’m tired and frustrated and I don’t always have the energy to do all I should for you. No, that’s not fair. I do everything I should for you. What I don’t do is all you’d like me to, and if I’m being perfectly honest, only part of that is because I don’t have the energy. The other part is because I don’t really want to.

As I said before in Pre K, I’m kind of sucky at “playing”. Moving cars or trains around on the floor with no game plan makes me twitchy. I’m happy to engage in a board game. I dig building. I’ve made more inanimate objects talk than I can possibly count and I’ve embodied every bad guy from this planet and beyond for you to destroy and capture, but I can only do it in ten to thirty minute intervals before I start planning my escape. I love talking to you. I love going places with you. I love singing and visiting and hugging and snuggling, but playing, just random “play with me” moments, exhaust me. I’m not four. I’m not a boy. I have nowhere near the energy you do and there are so many other things I need (or would like) to be doing. I love to work. Love it. It makes me feel good. I like using my brain. I feel pride in a job well done. I aspire to do better, be better, than I am, not just as a parent but as a person. Despite the fact that my life closer resembles a 1950’s housewife than the millennium power player I thought I’d be, I still aspire for things to be different. I cook and clean and do laundry because it needs to be done. I research the best schools and camps because I want you to be happy and fulfilled. I take you from class to class and involve you in extracurricular, play dates and sports because that’s what a good mother does, but I’m not fulfilled by it. I’d love to be one of those women I see at preschool drop off in full Lulu Lemon on her way to spinning, but my finances can’t stretch to exercise classes, and I don’t have time to waste those two and a half hours on something as frivolous as me. I have to get home, attempt to be creative on cue, then return to my job as a full time mother.

I love being your mom but being a parent is sometimes a tough pill to swallow. There are days, like recently, when you were furious at me for A: choosing “totally the wrong shorts”, B: having the audacity to take off your long sleeve shirt so you wouldn’t be hot, and C: “interrupting” you, all before I’d even had a chance to brush my teeth, when I just want to say, I’m out, and go catch a movie. I don’t want to be away from you for long, but sometimes I could use an afternoon, an evening, a day, when I wasn’t in charge. I think that’s not so much selfish as self preservation.

I recently read an article in the New York Magazine called All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting, that gave weight to some of the more complicated feelings surrounding parenthood and that ultimately, made me feel a bit better (and more justified) in my shortcomings.

The article points out that being a parent is something that most of us chose and when asked, would say we would be miserable without. I agree wholeheartedly with this as having you was an active choice that I can’t imagine living without. The article, however, goes on to say that most people assume having children will make them happier yet “a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not, in fact, happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.”  The article quotes a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist who, after surveying 909 working Texas women found that “child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities.” * Preferred activities included cooking, exercising, TV, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, even cleaning. The article suggests that perhaps much of the problem may be attributed to the fact that raising children has fundamentally changed.

“Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.”

Reading that resonated on many levels. I do see childhood as a privileged and protected time. You’re an adult with responsibilities for so long that I think having the opportunity to be a child without pressure is key, but I also want you to go as far as you can in life and with that hope comes a certain amount of stress. According to the article I’m not alone. Apparently middle and upper class families are particularly susceptible to unhappiness as they are more likely to “see their children as projects that need to be perfected”.  Though your Dad and I try so hard to not put that anxiety on ourselves, or worse, on you, the fact of the matter is there’s so much competition, so much emphasis on making the “right” choices and choosing the “right” path that it becomes overwhelming. The article acknowledges that feeling saying, “middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it appears that level of diligence is something few parents feel they can neglect “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”  It’s a tough road to navigate and one that leaves very little energy left for for Ninjango, let alone doing something for yourself.

According to research, all parents today, regardless of social status, seem to spend more time with their kids than (when I was born) in 1975. “Today’s married mothers have less leisure time (5.4 fewer hours per week), 71 % desire more time for themselves (as do 57% of married fathers), and yet 85% still think they don’t spend enough time with their children.”

The article reminds us a few generations ago “people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did.” It goes on to say “We’re lucky today to have choices about these matters, but the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.” 

It also matters what age you are when you have your kids: “When you become a parent later in life there’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.”  There’s no more “let’s meet up for dinner” or “wanna catch a movie?” Your freedom and autonomy no longer exist, you traded them for parenthood, and for the most part you also traded your disposable income and marriage first mentality.

It’s been said that you should always put your relationship first, that a happy marriage makes a happy family, but in real life that can prove quite difficult. Thomas Bradbury, father of two and professor of psychology at UCLA, says: “Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent.” Psychologists Lauren Papp and E. Mark Cummings asked 100 long-married couples to spend two weeks meticulously documenting their disagreements. Nearly 40 percent of them were about their kids. “And that 40 percent is merely the number that was explicitly about kids, many other arguments were ones couples were having because they were on a short fuse, tired, or stressed out.” According to Changing Rhythms of American Family Life one of the biggest problems with marriages with children “is the amount of time married parents spend alone together each week: Nine hours today versus twelve in 1975.” Husbands and wives apparently spend less than 10 percent of their home time alone together. “And it’s mostly just two tired people staring at the TV.”

Lest you feel depressed my love, or feel I’m somehow saying having you was a drain on my happiness or a detriment to your father’s and my marriage, I will tell you that is unequivocally not the case. Your father and I are stronger as a couple because we are both so devoted to our family. If anything you have brought us closer together. Life, in itself is more of a strain, but statistics (and my heart) will confirm that “though parenting might make people unhappy, not parenting makes people feel worse.” That when we “take stock of our life, in the end, it isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.” Children give us a real sense of purpose and a point to our lives. It might not always be fun, but it’s exceptionally rewarding. Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell highlighted the concept of “retrospective happiness”. The idea of looking back on our good times – the very things that in the moment might have felt like a complete drag – but later can become the “source of intense gratification, nostalgia and delight.”

I know this to be true. You’re only four and a half and I already feel it. It might be just a trip to Target or grocery shopping or brushing your teeth. Time we’re simply filling in, or errands that just have to be done – those ho hum, nothing special, moments between moments – but in retrospect those times are some of the best. It’s time just spent together, snippets of connected activity where I get to steal a kiss or two from your sweet skin and talk with you about everything and nothing. Days I know I’ll look back on with nostalgia and longing. I may miss my old life. I may have days when I desire my autonomy. Times when explaining why it’s not “unfair” that you can’t have a mall pretzel at 5:30pm is just too much, when the selfish takes over and I can’t bare to pick up another toy, or I just want to shut my door and be alone, but I wouldn’t give any of it up for the world. You are by far the best thing I’ve ever done, my most prized accomplishment. In my heart of hearts, I know even if I don’t get as far as I’d like in my professional life, looking at you makes me feel like a success. I love you. Your presence has blessed my life.

There are so many moments as a parent that make it worth it. Moments that melt your heart with joy and make you say things like, “God, we’re so lucky” and if you can accept that there will also be times of exhausting, overwhelming tedium, extended moments where you wonder where your life went, then you’re well on your way to being a happy and successful parent. Your Gigi tells a story about when your Dad and Uncle Matt were young and she would sneak out to the garage just to hide in the car and have a break. I always thought that was a hilarious image, but now that I’m a parent it’s starting to look like a pretty good idea.

Why do you think I have so many magazines in the bathroom?

I love you kiddo. Cut me a little slack will ya?

xoxo your loving Mom

*all quotes from Jennifer Senior, New York Magazine, “Why Parents Hate Parenting” July 4, 2010

Being Laid Back Stresses Me Out

For those of you who noticed, and thank you for noticing, I didn’t publish a post last week. In a very exciting turn of events I’ve been asked to put together a book proposal (!!) for this blog. Yay! It’s extremely exciting and truly what I hoped would happen and, as you can imagine, I’m hell bent on knocking it out of the park. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change my posting schedule to every other Monday while I finalize the proposal and, with any luck, write the book. I feel this way I can ensure that both mediums get the attention they deserve. Thank you for your interest. Please tell your friends, and subscribe if you’ve been enjoying it. Publishers love numbers and the more people I have reading, the better my chance at succeeding in the transition from on-line to on paper. Thanks a million!! Now onto the blog….

Last Saturday was Loch’s first ever t-ball game. He’s been taking t-ball every Tuesday for a month and this weekend was his first real game. Perhaps I should preface this by saying that Loch, though able to really crack a ball at our house, has yet to show any real aptitude for a particular sport, or to be completely fair, sports in general. Some boys I know are all over athletics. My nephew for one is like the mini-Shawn White of ball sports. You give that kid a ball and he astounds you. His abilities come naturally and he clearly loves it.

My amazing nephew kicking soccer's butt. How cool is this kid?

Loch's into being active for dancing and roll playing. Here's my little Indian Chief doing a kitchen boogie.

Loch on the other hand, God bless him, seems only mildly interested in physical activity at best. Now it could be an age thing or that he just hasn’t found his strength yet, but ever since he was a little dude – and all the kids would be climbing and running and jumping – he was happy to just hang out and chat and role play and do voices and songs. He would do activities if encouraged, but for the most part he was happy at a less physical level. However, at the recent parent teacher conference at his new preschool we were told – much to our ire and aniexty – that Loch was “fleshy”. We were like, huh??? Fleshy? The teacher tried to clarify her thought by going on to say he was “soft”. “Soft like fat???” No, apparently, soft like lack of muscle tone. Lack of muscle tone?? He just turned 4. How ripped is he supposed to be? She went on to say that he wasn’t catching balls or climbing as they’d like to see. She finalized her point by saying it was possible that Loch would never be a “fully physical person”. What now?! How the H do you know that? He’s flippin’ 4!  We don’t know what kind of person he’s going to turn into. Why label him with that kind of stigma now? How does that benefit him in any way?

Does this kid look "fleshy" to you?

We were pretty angry in the weeks following that meeting. Personally, I’m of the opinion that unless there’s a real and glaring problem with a child that the parents are A: unaware of or B: not properly managing, to make broad assessments/assumptions about what might be wrong with your child or who your child might be in the future, is an unnecessary and futile endeavor at this age and only serves to stress everyone out. There’s too much pressure these days for our kids to be brilliant, little geniuses in everything and too much strain on their caregivers to ensure they turn out that way. In the world of standardized testing it’s like we’ve forgotten that kids develop at their own pace and until there is something worth dealing with – a clear developmental delay or behavioral issue – it doesn’t help to constantly compare them to their peers or try to match them to their appropriate “benchmark”. Having a sense of where your child is can be important as far as helping them grow and learn, but inferring there’s a problem if they aren’t all meeting certain “requirements” at exactly the same time, seems to cause more harm than good. The same teacher told one of my friends her 3 year old “wasn’t at all academic” and another that her child “might have developmental delays” and the kid is clearly fine. The more parents I spoke with, the more I realized we’d all been told something negative. It was as if the teachers were lookingfor issues just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. These people see our children between 6-9 hours a week. 6-9 hours a week with 3 and 4 year olds and you think you can clearly assess their future potential? Parents are already alarmists. Why make it worse?

He's physical...if he's interested.

That being said, I’m having a hard time taking my own advice or getting that teacher’s words out of my head. Even after I cross referenced with his morning teacher – who’s had him for 2 full years, 12 hours a week – and she told me that she felt the assessment was unnecessary and premature and Loch was a wonderfully active and well adjusted child,  I still felt anxious. In my heart I knew he was fine, and quite frankly, probably just physically drained after being at another school all morning, but I still felt strained. No one wants to hear their child is lacking in any department. Plus, I’m aware that my child seems a little apathetic when it comes to physical things. Can he hit a ball? In our yard, sure. Yes. Well even. But also for about 10 minutes and then he’s bored. Does he run?  Totally. Not like those kids who never stop running, but when he does do it, he actually does it really well. Does he ride a bike? Yep. With skill and strength. But he’s really only interested if you walk beside him so he can chat with you the whole time. He’s never been a climber or a swinger, which was good for my nerves – I never found him on top of any furniture – but bad for my anxiety as I’d watch kids clambering over him as he lay like a wet noodle over a piece of equipment calling for help.

I realize it’s an “everyone in his own time”, “don’t worry”, “he’s going to be who he’s going to be” type of a thing, but I’m feeling the pressure, and trying to pretend I’m not only makes it worse.

Not bad right?!

So, his first t-ball game was this weekend. I’m not sure if he’s loving t-ball – the coach is harsh and shouldn’t be working with 3-5 year olds – but for the most part he’s excited, so we go. Frankly, we’d go even if he wasn’t excited as I’m trying to instill a non-quitter mentality, though I’m not completely sure I chose exactly the right place to teach this (see: Coach).  Anyway, up until last week we were working on skills – throwing, hitting, catching – and now we’re starting to play games. Loch’s a pretty good thrower (when he’s paying attention) and a pretty good hitter (when he’s not phoning it in). His catching is abysmal but so is everyone else’s so it seems on par. There are some kids (like my nephew) who are already good. They come with their big brothers and their own bats and seem to handle the skills like little pros. Whether it’s a product of working at home with their families or just natural dexterity, I’m not sure, but it must feel pretty amazing to be the parent of a child who is clearly excelling. It’s how I’ve always felt with Loch’s verbal and conversational skills but sports abilities happen in a more public forum and are more easily comparable, so it feels different somehow. We show up for opening day and find the kids we practice with have been split into 2 teams. 11 kids – including all the “ringers” – are the Angels, and Loch and two minuscule 3-year olds boys are the Cardinals. It was ridiculous. 3 kids to what would soon grow to 12, and hopelessly mismatched in the skills department. As I stood there smiling at my son I started to fester.

Lochie, front left, at the head of his team of 3.

Opening day started with all the teams from the league present. T-ball, Softball, Baseball. 3-16 year olds with our little guys looking cute and tiny compared to the big kids. We did a lot of nice things. Pledge of allegiance. National anthem. Speech about the importance of little league by an old major leaguer. It was lovely and totally Americana, but I was still preoccupied with the size of Loch’s team. By the time he ran up to run the bases in front of the cheering crowd and the announcer said, “Where’s the rest of your team?”  I was crawling out of my skin. Good question announcer guy. Where were they? Why were the teams so drastically uneven in both size and ability? Even if the rest of his team showed up before the game started, what kind of parents just skip the opening ceremony? Are they even going to care or help? Loch, who’s already not sure he wants to do this, is going to either A: be unable to play, or B: lose miserably and think the game isn’t fun. I found myself looking at Sean to express my anxiety and then looking at Loch and saying, “Isn’t this great? You’re going to have the best time!” I’d bitch to my mother, and then turn and smile and cheer my baby so he had no idea I was upset. It was exhausting.

My little man in the dugout of 3. He wasn't quite sure what to expect.

Right before we were scheduled to begin, 5 kids showed up. No uniforms. No gloves. One was sick. We waited for them to get changed and join Loch and the other Cardinals. Now keep in mind seeing that we’ve only worked on skills, most of these kids have no idea how to actually play the game. They hit the ball and the coach yells “Run!” and they run forwards after their ball. Why wouldn’t they? No one’s taught them any different. They get on first base and there’s another hit and they run randomly across the diamond. It’s chaos. I’m not going to lie, it’s kinda hard to watch. At the last practice I actually left the stands to join the assistant coaches (read: Dads) on the field because it was too distressing to watch these little people flailing around, not having a clue what’s going on. And before I come off like some freakish sport’s mom, I’d like to say that parents are encouraged to help, so I wasn’t out of my mind going out there. But there I am panting with my stupid lung disease, running the bases with the kids. Explaining where to go. Running after the ball that’s gone through 4 kid’s legs in a row and is now in the outfield. So, keeping that last “practice” in mind, and looking at Loch’s delapatated team, I was expecting this whole thing to be a disaster. Sean, in his infinite wisdom and optimism, told me to relax. He reminded me that it was just a t-ball game and the point was just to have fun. I smiled at him and then turned to my mom and said, “Relaxing gives me anxiety.” 

It's actually pretty funny when you think about it. It's like the blind leading the blind out there.

The game started with Loch’s team up to bat. He hit it and, having practiced at home, ran right to first base. Yay! Sean was was at the T helping the second kid, and when he hit it, he ran to first and Loch went to second. The third kid came up – one of the 3 girls on Loch’s team – and got a great hit so Loch was now on third. There was a little confusion when the second batter ran to the pitcher’s mound instead of second base but it was quickly sorted out and we moved on. As the fourth hitter ran to first and my son rounded for home all my anxiety lifted. Everything in his little body exuded joy. I could kill myself that I’d given my camera to my mom. As he crossed home plate, he turned around, jumped in the air and pumped his fist as high as he could. Looking at him you would have thought he’d won the World Series. He was so thrilled. And in that moment I realized he didn’t care that he had limited skills, or a rag tag team, or even that he didn’t really understand the game. He was just having fun. Learning about teamwork and sports and being outside and working with others. He was happy, and wasn’t that why I signed him up in the first place? Whether he grows up to be sporty or not, isn’t the point for my child to have fun?

How happy is this face?!

As a parent it’s easy to forget that stuff. Even after my epiphany at the ball game, I found myself frustrated later that afternoon when Loch went to a birthday party that included swimming. Knowing I couldn’t take him in the water myself – a trauma for his ex-lifeguard mama who now gets too tired – I took along his speedo swim jacket to ensure his safety. It’s not a life jacket per say but a floatation device that, should you be paddling and kicking, will keep you above the water. He was dying to swim, but as soon as he was in the pool he was clutching at the wall and crying for help. He’s taken lessons on and off since he was 1, and for the past 5 months he’s been in lessons every single week. I’ve seen him swim clear across a pool unassisted more times that I can count. But here he is on the edge of the pool – wearing a floaty – totally panicked and crying. Now, if I truly believed he was scared to his core – the way he is of dogs – I’d feel differently. But I could tell that this was more a matter of getting attention and a lack of focus. He’s got a bit of a focus problem. He’s so interested in the world that he tends to get distracted when he’s not totally engaged. His skiing instructor told us he was “a gifted and natural skier when he wanted to be”  but when he was distracted he lost all apparent skill.

I LOVED this weekend. He was so keen and interested. It was great to watch!

This is what I was witnessing in the pool. I talked to him at the edge, and when he finally accepted that his vest would keep him up, he started having fun. It was lovely to see him kicking and paddling around the pool. To watch him interacting with his pals in the water and really enjoying the day, but there was a part of me that had to keep reminding myself not to feel disappointed he was in the vest, not keeping up with his friends swimming on their own. I know he’ll eventually learn and that it’s important he’s happy and confident in the water first, but it’s so hard not to want to speed things along. Mentally I know pushing him won’t help, frankly it’ll probably just hinder, but the voice inside my head is screaming “I was swimming at 4. Why isn’t he? What am I doing wrong?!”

Being laid back and relaxed is not my natural state. My resting anxiety level floats somewhere between aware and amped. I can enjoy a beach vacation and I’m happy to chill and read a book but my way of interacting with the world rests more in a state of alertness. I’m quite quick to get peeved. I have little patience for mismanaged situations (the team dichotomies) or dense people (people who screw up their jobs due to lack of effort or brain power), and as someone who’s always worked hard to see results, being a parent is an interesting challenge in learning not to push my child to be where I’d like him to be, but accept – within reason – where he is without pressure.

My face kind of says it all.

I realize that people like me are often tough to be around. We get riled up and need to “fix” situations, or learn to accept them, and that can be difficult for us. I see the strain my anxiety puts on my husband and I truly make an effort to tamp it down. The thing is, as much as I’d like to let more things roll off my back – and parenthood has really required me to embrace this – I would never want to be a “relaxed” person. The world can’t be all chilled out, don’t worry, hakuna matata type people. Nothing would ever get done. I’m not saying I couldn’t use a lifetime supply of chill pills. I’m just saying I wouldn’t want to be on them all the time. Stress can be either an instigator to accomplishment or it can weigh you down. For the most part I’m the former.

There’s an old saying, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. I believe that. But what you have to keep in mind is highly functioning people also tend to be a little wired. It’s a trade off.

Is there a happy medium? Probably. Do I wish I had it? I guess. But, I’m used to being like this, and I only feel bad about it when I’m compared to more laid back people. Who would there be to say the things you’re too embarrassed to say, or handle the situation you wish was different but didn’t want to make waves, without my kind of person? Who would  send back your uncooked fish or get your drink order corrected? Who would make sure all the kids got a turn, or get you a second opinion at the hospital where the doctor on call appears to be half asleep and making bad decisions? It’s people like me that do that. The stressed out, high strung, tightly wound people. We’re the people who say no to the terrible hotel room. Someone will take that room, and they’ll pay the same amount as the people not looking at the the air conditioning ducts, but that person won’t be me, and if you hang out with me, it won’t be you either. In the grand scheme of things does my son’s team really matter? No. But I’ve paid and signed up for the full experience and if it isn’t that, you can take your “no big deal/hang loose/who cares” mentality back to Hawaii or Coachella because I’m not buying.

If that game on Saturday had turned out differently and Loch’s team had gotten clobbered been unable to play, my strain would have impelled me to speak and I believe ultimately everyone would’ve been better for it. But as it was, everything turned out just fine and I could, in all honesty, relax and enjoy.

I just have to hope that’s good enough.

Because it’s the best that I can do.

Go Cardinals!