Friday, September 18, 2015

Yes, You Can!

Or Maybe You Shouldn't

One of the responses I hear with some frequency when I tell people I am a stay-at-home parent is, "oh, I could never do that."  Or less frequently, but still on occasion, "my spouse (typically husband) could never do that."  When I hear these comments, I usually respond with a lighthearted chuckle knowing that their statement is an excessive exaggeration likely aimed at trying to make me feel better about my current job title on my LinkedIn profile (or lack thereof).  Even our pediatrician once commented to me that she couldn't be a stay-at-home parent, which was a blatant lie.  I would let her stay at our home with our kids any day.

Sure, being a stay-at-home parent can have its fair share of challenges; it requires excessive amounts of patience and a healthy dose of self deprecation to keep you from snapping.  But it's not rocket-science or brain surgery.  Remember that, outside of needing the necessary anatomy and physiology for reproduction, there are no other required prerequisites to having and raising offspring, even though there maybe should be.  While you might not be as good maneuvering in the Grand Caravan as I am, if you are currently a parent or thinking about becoming a parent, I'm pretty certain you could do what I do on a daily basis.*

At least I really hope so.  After hearing the remark from people about their, likely exaggerated, inability to be a stay-at-home parent, I started to wonder if some people actually believed that statement to be true for themselves.  That was when I began to get a little worried, especially considering the number of current parents who made that comment to me.  I've decided that if you truly don't think, under any circumstances, you could ever be a stay-at-home parent, you're not ready to be a parent period.  A few weeks ago, I was asked by a couple who has contemplated starting a family when I felt I was ready to have kids, and I didn't have a good answer for them - especially considering how we started our own family somewhat unexpectedly.  This notion has given me a definitive answer on when I think people are ready.

Not that I think everyone should be a stay-at-home parent or even feel "called" to be a stay-at-home parent.  There are certainly households that function better and are probably happier with the parents working and kids going to a high quality daycare.  I felt as though that was our situation before we added number three.  But life has a tendency of throwing you more curveballs than Tim Lincecum, and at some point, the circumstances of your life might necessitate, or just make more sense, for you to be a stay-at-home parent.  This can be the case for a whole host of reasons - child illness, job layoff, relocation, something, good or bad, affecting your spouse, etc.  If, even under those situations likely out of your control, you could never see yourself being a stay-at-home parent, even temporarily, I don't think you're ready to be a parent.

Becoming a parent doesn't mean that you need to put all other aspects of your life on hold or give up everything you've worked so hard to achieve from a career standpoint to focus solely on the adorable little monster you've created.  Yes, work-life balance can become even more challenging with children, but millions of people figure out how to make it work.  However, when starting a family and adding other human beings to the mix, you inevitably increase the likelihood that something beyond your control will come up that will have a significant impact on your life.  Becoming a parent means that you have to be ready to put all other aspects of your life on hold should the circumstances warrant it - mother or father.  To drop everything and deal with any shit that has hit the fan - usually figuratively, sometimes literally.

Andrew Moravcsik, a political science professor at Princeton University, contributed a great article for the October edition of The Atlantic, entitled "Why I Put My Wife's Career First".  It his article, which was a follow-up to an (also great) article his wife, a former State Department official, wrote a few years ago, Dr. Moravcsik cites research that given the "nearly impossible expectations....for ambitious young people planning two-career marriages" and increasing number of young professionals are opting to not have children all together. That is certainly one way to go, and sometimes it is those people who decide not to have children who would make terrific parents, stay-at-home or working.

Personally, I see this first hand with my sister and brother-in-law.  They have made a conscious decision, despite the fact that I think they would both be phenomenal parents, to not have children.  They haven't necessarily done this to pursue high-powered careers, as both of their professions are very family-friendly, or because they are kid averse, as they love spending time with their nieces and nephews.  They've decided that the life they've created is what they want it to be and expanding their immediate family is not of interest to them.  Certainly some people see this as a selfish move, but I actually feel it is the opposite.  Because starting a family and having kids is the prevailing norm in our society, I believe it takes more thought and more self actualization to realize that not having kids won't leave you feeling unfulfilled.  While the actual operation of parenting is much tougher (to say nothing of the labor and delivery for the female), I see making the decision to not be a parent as a more challenging one.    

So when people tell me that they "couldn't be a stay-at-home parent", I feel the urge to respond with, "Yes, you can!"  But if you don't already have kids, and honestly don't think you could ever be a stay-at-home parent, I wouldn't recommend becoming a parent to begin with.  If you do already have kids, and honestly don't think you could ever, under any circumstances, be a stay-at-home parent, I hope your spouse vehemently disagrees.

"Yeah, you don't know how it feels."

It can get a little taxing when you're
carrying around some additional weight.  

Seriously though, it's not that tough.

*I actually have significant prior experience with a Grand Caravan, as I drove one for the better part of my Senior Year of high school.  Don't get discouraged, practice makes perfect.      

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Intricate Dance of Parental Multitasking

A Contraposing Paradox

The ability to multitask seems to have become a minimum requirement to be qualified for any job these days, akin to being able to read and write.  With the advances in technology, it seems we are now more capable than ever of completely maximizing our time efficiency, and if you're not doing more than at least two things at once, you're probably sleeping.  Parenting is no exception, and being a stay at home parent to three kids under the age of 5, my life has become one permanent multitask.  Even the Pope recently marveled at what he sees as parent's ability to pack 48 hours or activity into a 24 hour day.  

When I decided to stay at home, one of the draws was being able to tackle some of the other time consuming facets of life that often got overlooked while both my wife and I were working - keeping the house semi-clean, running errands during normal business hours, cooking meals, doing laundry, etc.  I have had more time to lend to these glamorous tasks, and will occasionally make time (see 2/26 post).  But it can still be a challenge to balance everything that is going on, and the "To Do" list seems pretty never ending.  It doesn't tend to help that the minute you complete on item on your list, say vacuuming, the kids have a way of adding three more: clean up broken glass on bathroom floor from glass container dropped by 4 y/o, wash floor outside of the bathroom where 2 y/o peed because she couldn't get to the toilet in time due to broken glass, do laundry because 2 y/o was wearing the only dress she will ever consider wearing - you know, the one that twirls really high.

So you have to perfect the art of parental multitasking, and there are definitely some modern devices that can help you.  To calm a fussy baby and get a variety of other things done at the same time, a baby bjorn is a great tool.  A few things I have done while "baby wearing" include: various household cleaning, meal prep (recommend limited oven/stove use), meal consumption, grocery shopping, playing with older children (pushing in swing, pitching for batting practice, etc.), helping older children use the bathroom, using the bathroom myself (by all means, judge away), and low intensity strength training (more to come on that one, and feel free to keep judging).  I've been able to rationalize the, likely excessive, use of the baby bjorn by considering the parental bond that you create with your baby by having them so close to your body.  Plus they are so young that they won't remember it anyway.

I also tend to gravitate toward various tasks that can somewhat easily be left alone for a sizable chunk of time, like laundry.  I do a lot of this "household chore" because I can put a load in the wash and it buys me 45 minutes.  Then I move it over to the dryer and buy myself another 45 minutes.  The trouble can come though after those 90 minutes are up, and the finished product actually needs to be addressed.  I like to say that our laundry spends a lot of time "in transition" at our house - it's been washed but hasn't had a chance to move to the dryer yet; it's dry but hasn't been folded yet; it's folded, or partially folded, but yet to be put away and currently occupies the entirety of our dining room table.  Transitional time of our laundry typically ranges between 1 hour and 1 week.

When you always have to be doing something to make it seem like there is a chance you could possibly be on top of things, you really have to seize every moment.  I've been known to load/empty the dishwasher while eating - I'm a slow eater and figure I could do something else in between bites while I chew excessively.  If I need to keep Gus entertained while I'm doing anything in the kitchen, he often gets put in his high chair with some food in front of him - poor kid eats out of boredom before he can even say the word.  For Isla & Havi, bath-time typically gives me free range of doing anything as long as I am within earshot of the bathroom.  Most of my checking in on the outside world through email, the daily news or social media feed occurs either when I've found a particularly good hiding spot for hide-and-seek or I'm taking care of some personal business - a questionably unhealthy routine I've tried to kick, but old habits die hard.

Figuring out all of the these ways to multitask and efficiently use your time can certainly give you a small sense of accomplishment.  At least temporarily until that sense of accomplishment is replaced by a sizable sense of guilt.  Sure one of the reasons I wanted to be a stay-at-home parent was to try and get more things done around the house, and I'm fortunate that our kids do play pretty well together and pretty well on their own, without always needing my companionship or assistance.  But when that happens, too easily I can find myself getting caught up with the other things that I think need to be addressed.  And after an hour or two go by, I wonder what I've really accomplished, besides folding half of the mountain of laundry that has been sitting in transition for three days.  Even though the kids can't tell time yet, I start to feel like a pretty horseshit parent when I realize I've been repeating, "I'll be there in just a minute" for the last 10-15 minutes.

Of course I've commented on how I feel it is important to allow my kids that independent play, and how I also feel it is important for them to see me doing chores around the house and understand that those things do need to be done.  But the primary reason I wanted to be a stay-at-home parent was to spend more time with my kids, not to try and keep our floors cleaner.  As always, it's finding a balance, and like most things you'll never feel like you are getting that balance quite right.  You'll never feel like you can keep the house as clean as it should be, or the meals as healthy and balanced as you want.  And you'll also feel like your squandering your time with your kids, and wonder why your preschooler isn't doing math at a 5th grade level or your nine-month old isn't "baby-signing" full sentences yet.  After our first was born, I would have one-sided conversations with her on our way to and from daycare while listening to the news on the radio, since I had read about the importance of talking to your child at a young age.  It felt absurd, but I thought I was wasting precious time where I should be fostering her intellectual development.      

Equally absurd has been realizing the bizarre contrast between the things I don't feel I have time to do as a stay-at-home parent and the odd things I do seem to have time to do.  Naturally, I never feel like I can stay on top of keeping the house in order as much as I should.  And because of the futile attempts to keep the house in order, I never feel as though I have enough time to prepare intellectually stimulating activities for the kids - Pinterest worthy craft projects, piano lessons, practice SAT exams, etc.  Essentially gone are the happy hours and adult extracurricular activities.  Finding 45 minutes to mow the lawn even tends to be a stretch.  And given that my last post was a month ago, one of the last things I seem to find time for is writing.  Does anyone know if they've developed thought-to-text software?

While I might not have time for those things, we do seem to have time to make the 2 mile round-trip walk to the grocery store for a small number of non-perishable items (usually takes us at least 2 hours).  If it's a nice day, we can go to the beach/pool/splash pad on a moments notice (or within the hour).  My tan this summer is unreal.  I have time to read and re-read as many children's books as I please, and could spend an entire day watching cartoons if I really wanted to (feel like a horrible parent that is).  Just the other day I marveled at how I spent the better part of the afternoon with Isla playing Legos, one of my favorite activities during my adolescence.  Yeah, it can be a pretty rough gig at times, but you just have to suck it up for the kids.

Similar to deciding if your going to stay home with your kids or not, deciding how you're going to manage/balance your time if you stay home with your kids tends to be one big crapshoot in my opinion, especially if you have multiple.  You'll feel various levels of guilt either way.  It's something I struggle with on almost a daily basis, but I think I'm getting better at understanding that I don't have to be doing 8 things at once to try and feel a sense of accomplishment.  One of my favorite authors wrote about the notion of "Unitasking" - focusing strictly on one thing at a time as a way to be more actively engaged in that particular thing.  It's definitely not easy to do, especially in our fast paced, technology-filled society.  I think it's worth considering though, especially when we are spending time with others, and most especially those we love (presumably are children).  To quote a late 1980s philosopher, "Life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it."       

Titles courtesy of Dr. John Hasselberg, one of the best college professors for buzzword Bingo