Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben
A friend and I were talking openly and honestly about what it’s like to be a single parent, to be fully responsible for your own children for a while with that kind of intensity. He expressed how hard it is to really enjoy his time with his children, and how he feels like he should. As parents, we’re somehow expected to feel like spending time with our children is blissful. Facebook and Instagram feeds of friends tell us the same stories over and over again: Children are wonderful adventurers in this world and it’s a privilige to watch them discover it.
That story is not false, but it’s only partially true. We know this, but somehow we have a hard time accepting it. My friend mentioned how much easier it is to enjoy time with the kids when all the house work is done, all the food is already prepared or when he’s out somewhere.
That already shows one of the major obstacles we have when trying to enjoy time with our children: It’s often hard to be fully present in the moment with them, because we have so many other responsibilities waiting for us. When a babysitter comes into our home, we’re impressed if they manage to cook as well as take care of our children. When we stay in with the little ones, we create an entire list of chores that need completing while we have “the day off”.
It’s clear that the expectations we have are an important indication of how we’ll experience the time ahead. I’ve written about the power of expectations in this post. So letting go of that checklist is one step towards being more present with your children. ‘But I still have all those chores’ I hear you say. You’re right, but you’ll get to them eventually. Laundry will wait and can be done in chunks. You can wipe the kitchen counter while they finish lunch. Just don’t plan a full cabinet reorganisation while you have kids running through your kitchen.
But even if you let go of all your expectations, and know that managing to feed them and guide them through the day without major injuries is already a win, even then it might still be hard to really feel joy in the moments you spend with them. Why is that so hard?
When I spend time with my niece and nephews, I experience a joy that is different from the time spent with my own children. And part of that joyful experience is that the time I spend with other children, is mostly carefree, especially if their parents are present. I do not have to function as referee in fights, or deal with their aches and disappointments. I don’t have to worry about the clean-up or about missed nap times. I can just be ‘fun aunt Joyinde‘ who jumps on the trampoline and paints faces. I can play with them for as long as I enjoy it or want to entertain them, and take a step back when I have other priorities. If it’s my job to babysit, I often don’t plan too much and might even have some activities ready in case they get bored.
With my own kids, I’m often overwhelmed with how much there is to think about. Your own kids will also be on their ‘most authentic’ behaviour when they’re with you (and on their best behaviour when with others). They can easily pick up on any stress you experience it, and have no reason to hide their emotions around you. They know (of should know) that whatever they do, or say, or scream at you, you’ll still love them and take care of them. They know your love is unconditional, so they’ll be sure to let ‘stupid Mama’ know when they’re upset.
So, what can you do about it? Obviously, we’d all much rather enjoy spending time with our children when we still can, before they turn into teenagers that no longer want to be around us. We want to be those parents who adore the time we spend together. These are some of the techniques and tricks I use often to help me draw energy from my time with my children, instead of having it drain all of my energy.
- Pick your favourite time of the day with your kids. I think (I hope) we all have that one specific time of the day, that one activity, that we enjoy with our children. Maybe it’s dinner as a family, or the drive to school, or maybe it’s the end of the day when they’re sleeping peacefully in their beds. For me it’s the bedtime story (stories) I read for them. I love stories and I love the feeling of both my angels snuggling up to me at the end of a long day. I remind myself every day of the fact that I love this moment and I thoroughly enjoy it (and tell my kids I enjoy being there with them.) Especially if it’s at the end of a rough day, it helps me connect with them in a loving way again before everyone settles down for the night.
- Put your phone away during the day. I know, it’s a tricky one, but I can also tell the difference between moments I’m mentally occupied (by my phone, or computer, or…) and moments when I’m really present. They can sense when our attention is elsewhere, and they need it, often. It’s wired into their biology: Our attention is what they need to survive.
Not seeing all those feeds also makes it easier to maintain realistic expectations of what time with kids is like.
- Redefine what makes a ‘good’ day. A good day with my kids is a day in which they know I love them, they enjoy themselves and they’ve eaten (mostly) healthy food. It’s a day where I don’t yell at them too often, and apologize when I do, and in which they don’t hurt each other too much, and apologize when they do. That’s enough. A good day doesn’t have to leave me with a perfectly clean house, 5 servings of veggies each and zero fights throughout the day, that’s just not going to happen.
- Find things to enjoy together. Did you enjoy drawing as a child? Do you have a fondness for boardgames (check!) or are you a dedicated Disney fan? There are activities you can enjoy together, even if you’re not the type to climb on the sofa and play Captain Hook to their Peter Pan (though I’ve been there as well, coat hanger in place as the hook). I, for one, can really enjoy walks in the woods, alone or with my kids.
- Plan and then let go of that plan. It’s nice to know what you might cook for dinner, even if you end up changing to freezer pizza’s last minute. It’s comforting to know you can go to the playground in the afternoon, even if the kids end up wanting to spend the day in the backyard. The best time to make these plans is the night before, or, at the very latest, at breakfast.
Having these plans built around your kids, is also a way to help you set realistic expectations of the day. Apart from that it greatly reduces stress, which never makes for great parenting!
- Let go of the guilt. Guilt can be a useful emotion: It can show us where we’ve acted out of accordance with our own values and where we want to act differently in the future. But there’s also the kind of guilt that comes from not living up to impossible standards we set for ourselves. If you don’t want to join in the water balloon fight, then don’t. Don’t feel guilty about it either. If you try to force yourself out of guilt, it rarely ever leads to joy, trust me!
- Be realistic, be mild, be gentle. When things go sour, don’t beat yourself up over it. If there’s a bad day, don’t spend the rest of the week fretting over it. Chances are, if you screw up from time to time, your children are more than willing to forgive you, so try to do the same for yourself. Take care of yourself and your own needs, respect your own boundaries so that you have something to give. Your children will learn that ‘no’ to this can mean ‘yes’ to that.
- Ask for help. If you’re overwhelmed, ask someone if they can take your children for a few hours. If you find something in raising your children particularly challenging, ask a professional for help. If you have trouble asking for help, read my post How Do You Ask For Help.
How do you make the most out of the days with your children? Do you have favourite activities you do with them? Do you plan those days out or just try to go with the flow? Or do you bump into those same obstacles?