When a child is born, so is an endless list of parenting duties that changes from one stage to the next. And, while fulfilling our duties makes us responsible parents, if that is all we do then we’re missing the point.
As a mother of five, I know this all too well. It’s so easy to get lost in the mundane, the ins and outs of parenting: sleepless nights, sinks full of dishes, piles of laundry, school lunches, carpools, homework, chores, baths and bedtimes. All these take up a significant part of our day, resources and energy, and all of these are a vital part of our parental duties; if we didn’t do them, we’d be irresponsible, perhaps neglectful. But if this is all we do, if we parent through our duties only, is this truly parenting?
The essence of parenting isn’t what we do; it’s our state of mind. It’s the conscious choice we make each and every day to be present in our children’s lives, to pay attention to their emotional needs, to provide them with a caring presence that becomes the soil in which they grow. This state of mind affects what we see and what we do, especially when things get messy. For example, a temper tantrum isn’t just something we have to endure as part of our parental duties. Rather, it’s an opportunity to provide space for emotional expression and loving support for our child when they are going through a hard time (which for a toddler could be anything from having a cookie break in two to not being allowed to play in the snow in shorts and sandals).
Household chores can be approached as ways to provide a pleasant and emotionally nourishing environment for our children. Sibling arguments can be seen as ways to help each child find his or her unique voice while at the same time making room for others. The preschooler’s endless questions can be appreciated for offering a window into their thoughts, an opportunity to see the world through their eyes – and there’s nothing like seeing the rain, noticing the butterflies and smelling the roses as if for the very first time. Even sleepless nights can be special moments of intimacy with our child, moments we’ll miss in the future when our children are grown.
I have found over the years that my default is parenting by duty, especially when I am tired or frustrated. Parenting by choice is a decision I need to make again and again (sometimes many times a day!) in order to regain the presence that I want to provide for my children. What is interesting is that I usually benefit from making that choice as much as my children do: I have more appreciation for opportunities of closeness and togetherness, more appreciation for the privilege of leading my growing children in this confusing world. Parenting through this state of mind brings me to a place of emotional rest and playfulness and enhances not only my childrens’ wellbeing but also my own. It is not “doing the right thing” that makes the difference, but rather being in a state of mind that allows me to appreciate the trial and error that goes hand in hand with raising children.
This may sound simple, but I have found that it is far from easy. When my children were all very young, my main challenge was the overall feeling that the current stage I was in with my child was endless. It began in the ninth month of pregnancy with my eldest, when I felt that she would never ever come out and I would be pregnant till the end of time. After that, I feared that my child would never sleep through the night, then that she would wear diapers forever, then that she would always hate taking a bath, and so on. I find that as my children grow older,the days and weeks seem to pass by faster and as my older ones grow up, I cherish the time with my kids even more…I even cherish the things that used to drive me crazy!
The years bring with them a realization that time is short and so are the intense years in which we raise our young children to adulthood. When we look back, it isn’t the checked off to-do lists that create a sense of fulfillment. Instead, it is the way in which we were present for our children that really mattered. Said another way, it isn’t what we did for our children but rather who we were for our children that, in the end, is most important.
There is so much we have no control over when raising young children, and there are many things we have to do. But we have a choice in how we step into our parenting role. We can get by with the default of parenting by duty, or we can make a conscious effort to parent by choice every single day. Through that choice we provide emotional well-being for our children, and also, remarkably, for ourselves.