Nobody on their deathbed has ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office” – Rabbi Harold Kushner; Senator Paul Tsongas
Whenever I hear a mom or dad say that they wished their child, regardless of age, could have a certain personality trait or master a certain skill, I will dig deeper to find out why their expectations were unmet.
Initially most parents would say that they had tried their best but their children were naturally difficult or were slower than their peers. But I would dig even deeper and one common cause would emerge – these parents were not engaging with their children.
How parents can win with time
A fresh batch of time comes with the start of each day. Everybody has 24 hours or 1,440 minutes in a day. In the US, most adults sleep 6 to 7 hours a day and working adults spend a total of 9 hours on work and on commute. Stay-at-home-moms spend 5 hours daily on housework and anything between 1 to 3 hours on work meant to generate income. The slight difference is that stay-at-home-parents may have more time for leisure and naps. However, this may not be true for stay-at-home-moms with children younger than 5 years of age.
Parents typically get 3 to 5 hours of engagement time in total for all kids
Subtracting 3 hours from the number of hours we are not working or sleeping, since the children should go to bed earlier than us, this leaves working parents or stay at home parents with roughly 3 to 5 hours engagement time per day with our kids. That gets further divided down should we have more than one child. Stay-at-home-parents may get to have more engagement time with their kids throughout the day, which is the reason why more working parents are making conscious, planned decisions to switch to working from home or quitting their jobs to stay at home. I’m mostly talking about me and Sarah. I’m planning to quit my job and be a stay at home mom. Sarah has already done it (she’s put in her resignation! Brave Sarah!!) and her post taught me what to look out for in the days leading up to my resignation.
Not getting mad is crucial to better engagement
Especially at times when we are exhausted, it seems that our children can really drive us up the wall. Our children are cranky when they are tired, and hard to believe, so are we.
We are cranky when we are tired or anxious. I confess that I used to get mad about 7-8 times in those precious three hours that I spend with my 2 year old, and most of the anger triggers were around bathtime, mealtime, brushing his teeth and bedtime. By getting mad I took the fun out of those activities, potentially reversing in what I wanted to achieve in the first place.
This last bit was the fork in the road for me. I decided I was going to not get angry because I would like him to enjoy his mealtime and bedtime routines. The other thing about having a big reaction to him not going with my way was that he was after more of my angry face! So getting angry truly, wasn’t ideal in at least two ways.
I reflected on why I got mad so that I could fix those triggers or create my own workarounds.
Anger management – discovering the reasons behind my anger
Reason 1. My own ambitious expectations
Usually I get mad because I expect or have hoped to have the activity completed within a certain timeframe, in order to complete the next string of activities without pushing back bedtime. Of course, getting him to finish his dinner or having his teeth brushed or diapers changed – they all took so much time! Diaper changing used to take 3 minutes before he learned to turn but now it takes about 20 minutes because suddenly everything that was not diapering became infinitely more interesting to him than diapering.
Honestly and I’m sure you will tell me too, these itty bitty routines couldn’t have been completed any sooner than had I not flared up.
Fix. Change my perceptions; have zero expectations
I should be happy that he wants to read 3 books each night instead of stress that it’s 30 minute past his bedtime. I can always negotiate with him to read 2 books or 1 – this discussion in itself is positive engagement and inculcates in him skills in negotiating.
Reason 2. I was not part of a tag team
I was also very often tired as my son would want me to do everything from feeding, peeing, playing with toys, brushing his teeth, reading to him and feeding him his nightfeed.
Even though my husband could potentially share in some of the child minding activities, my son only wanted me and a lot of it was my fault right from my breastfeeding days. I let my husband sleep through the night and handle everything else myself. I also initiated buying toys and books right from the start, and took it upon myself to sit with him through playing and reading.
When I compared notes with my colleagues and mommy mates, they almost always had help from their partners, a parent or a hired helper. Their children were fine getting their teeth cleaned by mom and read to by dad. Me? I had to do everything – that usually means getting mad at some point whereas not getting mad required superhuman mental strength.
Fix. I created BuddyUp Sunday and more opportunities for daddy and son to spend time together
As our son’s abilities in deduction and speaking improved with age, my husband felt that he could more easily interact with our son. As my son grew older, I too relaxed on my stringent requirements on hygiene and meals prepared outside of our home. These were developments that I could leverage on to change some of the more exhausting routines.
I started taking Sunday afternoons off, going to my parents’ or to the library to write. After I got our son and the essentials backpack ready on Sunday mornings, my husband would bring our son to the toy store, lunch, library and home to nap. I would return home to a smiling duo of father and son, recharged to tackle my son’s needs and less guilty from not being able to write much throughout the week.
Some nights that I was truly zonked I would just go to sleep and let my husband handle the bedtime routine. Yes, unfortunately my son is truly capable of sleeping after me – half past ten on most nights and it is due to his insane dislike for sleep that I created a game with the sole objective of getting him to fall asleep before I did.
Reason 3. I was used to a discipline-first environment
I grew up in a loving family but my mom rigorously shaped and molded me so that I would be polite, considerate, diligent and fastidious. Personality traits that eventually culminated in a daughter who could make her job easier, never caused her to lose face in public and who until today, would watch her words when mom was around. Not bad traits right?
Except it meant that I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted to do 9 times out of 10. I remember my mom most as a strict disciplinarian and all her other motherly sacrifices lived in its shadow. It was easy for my subconscious to slip into or even recreate that strenuous environment I grew up in.
Fix. Conscious effort to steer away from negativity and words such as “cannot” or “do not”
This is not a straightforward fix because it really depends on what the situation is. As in, there are certain times when it’s a clear “no”. When it’s half past ten at night and he wants to read three books, I have to say no right? I can’t say “Do continue, you rock!” if we are in the supermarket and he starts pulling things off the shelves either.
The magic trick is to say no in a variety of ways, use clear language especially if it involves mention of when, and allow him to have the ability to make up his mind.
“What about reading one long story instead of three books?”
“What if we get papa to buy this toy monster truck from Amazon instead, there are more trucks to choose from”
“How about you feed mama, mama feeds you before you feed yourself next week?”
“Why don’t you let her play with this toy for ten minutes and she’ll return it to us in ten minutes?”
“Would you like cough medicine in a spoon or in a syringe?”
“Here, help mama chop up some velcro vegetables as mama needs the kitchen scissors to make your dinner”
“I need both hands to prep our dinner, how about standing on this chair next to me so that you can watch me work?”
Reason 4. I let comments get to my head
Some of the anxiety I’ve had came from his day care teachers who told me that while all the other kids in class would feed themselves, only my son waited for the teachers to feed him.
Initially I really drilled in onto this observation, thinking that it was a regression since he was eager to feed himself when we did baby-led weaning. I harshly tried to get him to feed himself – that didn’t work. I tried to do it the fun way by setting up a picnic area in my apartment and getting him to feed me while I fed him – that worked sometimes, and sometimes it didn’t.
Sometimes learning about the milestones that other kids around his age had achieved would cause me anxiety too. I tried not to be Competitive Connie but in some ways, I was naturally competitive or I couldn’t have gotten good grades in school. I can imagine many parents battle with these comment-led anxieties from time to time.
Fix. Expose him to new skills; let him pick up at his own pace. Value his strengths and horne them
I consciously refrain from sharing my son’s achievements in group chats unless anyone specifically asked. I don’t want to add guilt or anxiety to any mom as much as I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of these emotions.
Whatever my son does well, I encourage him to do more and to innovate. This ways he keeps learning and expanding on what he is good at. He stays interested in what he does and is positively reinforced by his own creations. I do not have to try very hard for him to like what he does best.
I discovered that my son can feed himself in the company of my mother-in-law or my husband but he would want me to spoonfeed him whenever it was just the two of us. I learnt to let that go. He will be independent soon enough. Besides, I don’t feel so bad about spoonfeeding him if I stay on the perspective that he wants to stay close to me.
This is a classic instance of “it takes a village to raise a child.”. My son learns differently from and behaves differently in the company of different people. It’s like, are you more likely to get a wider range of nutrition (and trash) if you eat a variety of food than the same BLT sub for lunch everyday? The answer is a clear yes, which is similar to the advantages we will see in the development of our children when we expose them to different members of the family and the community.
Less anger, better engagement
If I rip out the anger, I would engage in far more superior ways with my son, even in times of exhaustion. In times of exhaustion it’s really about quality engagement because that’s all the energy we will have left for.
It is in those times that we impart the best of us to our kids, and insodoing deserve the superhero accolade they have of us in their heads.
Most kids would far prefer fewer “things” and more of us – Rob Parsons