Thursday, August 6, 2009

what kind of parent am I?

My friend Wendy and her kids came over this morning to play. Her son is about 2 months older than Frances and her daughter is a week older than Clark, which is fabulous for us (though if the genders matched that would be even better!). She and I are both only children and have both struggled with now to navigate having two, how to split our attention, how to deal with the lack of alone time, etc. She's been somewhat of a lifesaver for me.

But today she completely blew my mind. I know she's going to read this and have no idea what I'm talking about... I don't even know how it came up exactly, but we were talking about space in the house and where we hang out and about getting things done (like emptying the dishwasher) and that she doesn't get anything done at all when the kids are awake, which is now all day. Then she said it's hard for her as an only child because her only model is one on one, full attention, and she doesn't really know how to do that with two. And she somehow came around to telling me that all she does is play with the kids, face to face, conversation style. All day. "I don't think all kids need that," she said, "but these do."


Wendy's kids are the calmest kids you've ever seen. And one's a boy. They're agreeable and they listen to her and they are gentle with each other. I asked her today about this, about how much she thought was their temperments and how much was her mothering. She said a little of both. "They're so calm," I said. "Yeah, my mother-in-law says our house is peaceful." I also asked if she had problems with her older being aggressive with her younger and she said she didn't, and hadn't. I watched as her son nearly sat on top of her daughter in a chair and Wendy quietly said, "Ayvin, sit next to her," and he gently shifted over.

It definitely doesn't seem to me that her kids need that kind of attention any more than other children do. What seemed obvious to me when she said it is that all children need it, really. Some are just better at making do with less. So where does that leave me and my kids?

It's never occurred to me that my job might be to play with my kids. It might seem like an obvious thing I'm missing here. I've thought of my job as "taking care" of them. Playing some, yeah, here and there, in between doing dishes and loading the dryer, in tickling moments just after a diaper change or teasing while we eat lunch.

All day?

Maybe I did think this way when F was a baby, but then Clark was born and my time was spent nursing and changing diapers and just trying to get through the day. What do I do with my time now? I feel mostly like I change diapers and help the other on the potty and change clothes when there's an accident and organize snacks for the car and fix food and feed and clean up and pull Frances off Clark and reprimand and admonish and try to work in fixing dinner or paying a bill. Periodically I help set up Little People or push someone in the swing but then there's the arguing and I turn into a referee rather than a teammate. Hm.

Years ago I had a dog I loved. I spent all kinds of time with her, talking to her, petting her, throwing the ball or taking walks or snuggling with her on the bed. She was the best. She was calm and agreeable, and people commented on how pleasant she was to be around. I'd see other dogs at my friends' houses, nutty dogs who were needy and hyper and jumped on you, and my friends would marvel at the difference between our dogs. And I'd think "You don't spend time with your dog; you don't give her your attention. What do you expect?"

I'm having a revelation here and I'm kind of embarrassed how elementary it seems.

Could I DO that? Could I just play with my kids? It makes me think of that book--Playful Parenting--that I talked so much about awhile ago. That book is about specific kinds of play but what's stuck with me mostly from that book is the chapter on roughhousing. And his point is about using play to allow children to work out their anxieties specifically. I get that. But this--this is so much larger, so much more. I don't know.

And what about the skills they learn from playing on their own? It's true that much of their own play time turns onto push-Clark-into-furniture time, which is a problem. This might be the place for me to say, "a-ha. My kids need more face time with me to learn how to interact."

But the truth is that I think of playing with my kids as boring, and is one of the reasons I believe I should go back to work. But maybe I've been thinking of the wrong kind of play; maybe I thought I was required to do the boring kind. Or something. Don't I periodically have these realizations that if I simply sit on the floor with the kids for an hour it does them heaps and heaps of good? Interaction, not play, is what is needed.

I will pause here in what feels like an incoherent ramble to acknowledge that Wendy intends to homeschool, or unschool, or whatever, and perhaps she's just more cut out for this temperamentally than I am. I have all kinds of internal conflict about activities, as you know, and I also have internal conflict about preschool--how many days, is it helpful or hurtful, should we do it at all, etc. Also, Wendy does admit that because of the constant attention and interaction, she is completely burnt by 4pm.

I'd love for this post to open up conversation if anyone wants to weigh in. I could ramble on for much much longer--this clearly sounded the gong on some issues I haven't resolved, or maybe even acknowledged. What percentage of your kids' awake time do you spend interacting with them directly, face to face, conversation style?


This life of mine said...

Cali-I really enjoyed reading your latest post and am going to make reading your blog more of a routine because you seem to vocalize a lot of the thoughts that I have swirling around my own head regarding parenting. My personal take on this post is that there are just different types of parenting styles out there and none of them are perfect/right. I think that one way to be "happy" with yourself as a parent it to draw from the positive things that you see your friends doing (like playing with the kids), avoid the "negatives" and incorporate them into your own temperment and parenting style. I definitely need to increase the interaction I have with my children, but I also see my role as a stay at home mom as the person in the family that is responsible for paying the bills and doing most of the things that you listed throughout the day (the refereeing, the clean ups, the cooking etc). I've also always been the type of person that needs my own space and time though, so it becomes a constant balancing act to meet all of their needs, meet the household needs, meet my marital needs, meet my own needs (hmmm, wonder if it's a sign that my own needs came last in that list). I admire that your friend Wendy (and other moms like her) find contentment in having that much interaction with her children. I often wish that I could be more like that, but the truth of the matter is that I'm not. I think that my girls gain valuable skills by learning to play on their own, to work out their own "battles" and to exist in a space where I am not guiding their actions or providing a parental presence. I personally need them to see that I have responsibilities to maintain the house (and I tell them often that I have to get things done before I can play) because I want them to grow up knowing that work comes before play (most of the time) and that responsibilities need to be taken seriously. I want them to understand that while I love them very much, I am my own person that needs to meet some of my own needs throughout the day. I have memories of my mom completely devoting herself to my brother and I and while I can appreciate the work and sacrifices she put into our upbringing, I can also see now that she didn't do enough to develop her own life throughout the years so that when the kids were gone, she'd have a full and enriching life to fall back on. I don't want this for myself at 62 and I don't want my children to use that as a model for their own potential parenting.

In regards to preschool, my own experience with Sarah has shown me that children (or at least mine) NEED interaction with other children to challenge them in ways that I can't. Sarah can play with her sister all day long but she often gets to direct their play as the big sister. At school, it's very different because everyone has their own ideas and they have to work together to incorporate all of them or they all wind up miserable. She gets exposure to other people's ideas (most good, some not so good) and I like that she's getting different viewpoints on life..even at an early age. She's seen that other adults make rules that need to be followed and it gives her a space of her own to develop her own personality...separate from her family. I get such joy when she comes home and tells me something that she has learned without me there. She has pride and ownership of ideas and concepts that I'm not sure she would have if I was providing her with all of her play/interactions throughout the day.

I could write more I suppose, but this is your blog and I have work to do. In response to your question of "what kind of parent am I", I think that you are the kind that constantly wants to make sure that she is doing the best that she can for her kids and her family but that recognizes the realities of the struggle that comes along with the joys.

Amy said...

That last one was from Amy-I had a blog at one point and it defaulted to that identity.

ebp said...

i have always believed that the main reason my kids both like each other and have always pretty much gotten along is becauase when they were small they both felt like they were getting enough attention and never had to fight each other for it. the reason that they felt this way, i believed (then and now) is because corey (their dad, on the off chance that someone other than cali will read this) played with the all the time when they were small. he didn't clean the house, he didn't take care of any chores, really; he pretty much didn't do anything other than play with them. and they learned so much from playing with him, and they seemed so happy about it, and seemed to feel so loved as a result!

it reminds me of a revelation you had a while back on your blog where you wrote of realizing that playing with f. was important; giving her a way to act and test out various feelings and reactions in play was important for her.

play is underrated, and while you are home- my god take the time to play.

Paige said...

I totally agree with everything said here: play IS important. Play with your kids! But really. No chores at all, all day every day? So are we supposed to eat take out pizza every night then? And eat that pizza on paper plates? Are we supposed to wear dirty clothes? And what about the very very real point of absolutely having to have some time for yourself? And someone IS eventually going to have to clean up, either the person who is working full time, or paying for a housekeeper to come at least twice a week. Realistically, I think the house doesn't have to be spotless (dusting is a very low priority for me), and you can (and I do!) incorporate the kids into housework (didn't you recommend a good book to me for this, Cali?), but I do not do housework after the kids are in bed, so I can spend some time with my husband so my marriage doesn't fail and then I'll be a single mom and have to put my kids in daycare. And I also think it is good for them to play a bit by themselves, to be able to have some downtime.

WendyKrug said...

Oh my! Was not expecting this when I decided to check in on you as my fun activity of the evening! I don't even know where to start. First, you are too hard on yourself. You are raising wonderful children and doing so much without family to support you (geographically). There is nothing wrong with striving to find that place where everyone's needs and some healthy wants (including your own) are being met. I love that you work to be a better you and reflect on your life. Just knowing you're there struggling too has nourished me since we met. While I honestly do play all day, there are obviously pros and cons. Yes, I get bored sometimes and use those moments to attempt cleaning up from breakfast or whatever, but I've learned that I cannot function or be productive happily with constant interruption and needing to "switch gears" over and over again. I get aggravated because I can't do anything to completion and the kids get aggravated because they really only needed me for a 20 second interaction but had to wait 10 minutes for me to do something. So, at this age, in this house, with these circumstances, I play all day. I give them space for independent play, but that rarely happens simultaneously so someone always wants something. I'd like to think that our time together has helped them be secure in their relationship with me and so has made their transition to siblinghood easier, but who knows. The hardest part of the way I do things now is definitely the work that has to be done with they sleep, but it's working for now. I couldn't keep it up forever (hence the move to a more conducive house for our family life) but for now I'm eeking out enough nourishment for myself and time for the basic necessities. You give me too much credit :)