More cake! – how we can support each other as parents.

We’ve all been there, as parents.

You tell your child that they have had enough chocolate cake and then, while you are distracted by good company and a second coffee, your toddler climbs onto your lap and starts eating cake from your plate, carefully at first, watchful of your reaction, and then with more confidence.

One of the biggest surprises, to me, in becoming a parent, is how exhausting the constant decision making is. Especially so since all the decisions can seem equally important in a harried world – does your child need to wear a hat today? can they have another cookie? watch another episode of PJ Masks? should you vaccinate/send them to kinder at age five?

So many of the decisions we make every day and every minute mean nothing in isolation but can have a huge impact on how simple our parenting lives are in the future. I don’t care if my child has another cookie today, or skips toothbrushing once a week, but I think that when I’m consistent, it works out in my favour later.

Just as I’ve found myself in the toddler-sneakily-eating-cake zone, I’ve found it painful to watch other parents in similar situations. The firmest “No,” turns into “maybe later,” and finally ‘OK then, just a bit,” all in the space of five minutes.

I must admit, I notice this mostly in women parents [partly because I mostly hang out with mums] and I think it’s probably a really important point to address in terms of bigger issues around women and assault.

Getting clear and committing – even to something as small as “we’re leaving the playground,” or “no more cake,” helps women set up boundaries and tune out social pressure, which provides an example to all kids that women are to be listened to and respected.

I’ve long tried to figure out ways we can help each other stick to our words, especially in social situations when we are distracted and want to enjoy being with our friends.

One way is to physically back each other’s decisions. Say the parent has said no more cake. If the child reaches for the cake, you can, as a supportive co-parent would, reach out and move the cake out of the child’s reach, saying in a friendly way “I’m going to make it easier for you to listen to your mum.”

Maybe you think the child should have more cake. Maybe you don’t care about the cake. It’s not the point. The point is to back each other up, no matter what the issue.

When you know someone really well, or if you are co-parenting, you could offer to remove the child or hold the child so the parent can focus on the goal [eg. getting the car ready to leave]. In this situation, the child may cry and scream. [Read more about listening to kids feelings here].

So often, parents back out of hard decisions in social situations, not wanting to face judgement or be the one dragging a screaming child down the street. We make split-second decisions according to what’s easiest at the moment, but having back up can help us follow through with what we know will pay off in the end.

Strong physical responses in parenting can be seen, beautifully, by watching animals parent.

My darling husband and father to my children has a charmingly animalistic approach to parenting – when our daughter decided to protest walking even short distances by dragging on our arms as we held her hand, he decided that if she dragged, he would let go of her hand. After explaining it to her, they began walking.

Every time she dragged, whack! her tiny two-year-old body would hit the snowpack. I had to look away – no one enjoys seeing their child upset. But she only did it a handful of times before deciding it wasn’t worth it to drag on his hand.

We parents tend to feel that we can’t do anything right. We sometimes fold guilt away into little pockets that remain in the fabric of how we identify as parents.

Having another adult or another parent make it clear that they will back anything we do as parents [obviously if it is safe for the child] is a huge relief.

It confirms what we know in our hearts – that we love our kids and that we’re doing our best.

 

 

 

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Why having kids or not is the hardest decision you’ll ever make.

I’m at that age [34] where some of my friends have teenagers, some have newborns and some haven’t arrived at the question: should I have kids?

And then everything in between – friends who are decidedly no, friends who tried to conceive but couldn’t [how can I tell you, tenderly, how sorry I am that there won’t be a piece of you, more of you in this world], friends who have lost infants and small children and friends who are in communication with their partner or a fertility clinic about how and when they’ll try to conceive.

It’s an age where many of us end up doing a lot of explaining our choices. I’ve seen one end of this in the subtle reactions to my friend Kat, who is 37 and visiting us with her youngest child, 15-year-old Luka.

Kat is graceful at introducing herself and alleviating the quick, curious glances between mother and daughter. “My son is nineteen,” she’ll explain, “one of the benefits of teen pregnancy is that my kids will both be out of home when I’m 40.”

Although I’m grateful that we live in an age when people in the western world mostly get to choose when to conceive [you can read my post about that here: Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality]  – or not to bear children at all, I also think that such a wide window leaves many people reeling.

Kat and I met a couple in their early thirties with no kids last week that I knew a little and she had never met before. After Kat had said her above introduction, the woman cast a pointed, sideways glance at her boyfriend and said firmly “I think 32 is the perfect age to have kids.”

When I asked her why she thought that, she answered that she has really good health insurance right now with her job.

So this is America, where people base when and whether to have kids on how good their health insurance is.

But this woman had a point – when it comes to a big life decision like having kids, the idea that we are making a reasonable, calculated choice is a facade because we can never know what it’s really like to be a parent until we are deep, deep into the swan dive.

So we cling to some vaguely pragmatic reason like “I’m 32” or “I have good health insurance.”

When I asked him later if he wanted kids, on a blue inflatable raft floating lazily down the Kootenai River, the woman’s boyfriend looked around him and said  “I’m not sure. My life is pretty good.”

Five years ago, I would have said something encouraging about having kids but lately I take pause in this conversation: I work hard at saying nothing. Because this guy and everyone who is looking at kids realistically deserves to be listened to: their message is clear.

Why would we have kids?

The next generation of fertile people in the USA is not stupid – according to figures from the CDC in 2017, birth rates have hit an all-time low of 62.0 births per 1000 women aged 15-44.

Americans already work so much, too much, and one thing you can say about having kids is it is work.

Our friend and housemate, Laura, has lived in our basement for the last two years. Laura moved in pretty certain she wanted kids one day, but has since has referred to living below two kids as “excellent birth control.”

Sometimes the contrast between our lives is comically different: while Laura uses her superpower of rolling out of bed five minutes before she has to be at work, I am up and working instantly: called to wipe a bum before I’ve made it to the bathroom myself.

I don’t say this with any bitterness or regret but have kids if you love to work from the minute you get up to the minute you fall asleep.

carry

Parenting work isn’t just the physical labor of hauling our children around and doing the housework and work to bring in money to look after them. It’s also the hundreds of tiny decisions we make about our children every day, which start well before our kids can ask these questions:

Can I watch a show? can I watch another show? can I sleep over with a friend? can I have an apple? can I have an ice cream?

Parents need to become excellent at delegating because a huge part of parenting is taking care of yourself so you can function, which means outsourcing childcare and housework as much as you can.

I’ve noticed there are two camps when it comes to advice about having kids – the 50-60-year-old women who tell you to “cherish every moment” and “relish the little angels” [how did they forget so fast??!] and the realists, of which Kat definitely is.

Kat, a parent herself for 12 years then, told me before I got pregnant: “having kids is like being the designated driver. Your kids are off their faces. You have to guide them across roads and make sure they don’t stop to look at shiny things for hours in the alley. When they throw up, you clean it up and make them food. Then you put them to bed while they cry.”

Asking people whether or not they plan to have kids, and if so, when, is one of those questions that falls into the category of it ain’t my business –  at times I’ve started my enquiries, genuinely interested and Haakon has melted away in a way that tells me “you are being nosy and overstepping the mark.”

I’m convinced asking people about their reproduction plans can be helpful – I want people to know that it is a choice, and they can get out of the riptide of societal expectation that children have to be part of the plan.

That it’s OK to not want to add work to an already full life.

The hard part about parenting is that we don’t get to jump into it fresh every day- our kids may well be angels from heaven but we can’t treat them like that because we are so.damn.tired and emotionally wrung out.

I do see the moments of glee and love between the endless bowls of uneaten oatmeal and tiny decisions and barrages of guilt.

But when you have kids, at some point the exhaustion will catch up and your responsibilities will hit you like a speeding train. The train is coming whether you are 18, 28 or 38.

The train will change your plans, as it did for me last week when a quick dip in the creek on a hot day turned into a counselling session for Atticus, who is six and worried about moving to Australia next week.

As Atty shrieked and kicked the water and trains screeched over our heads in the pool under the railroad trestle, I tried to find a minute to dunk under the water and cool off as planned.

Kids don’t wait until you are in a good mind frame to break down – they do it when everyone is stressed and we have to step up and be there for them, which sometimes feels like the hardest thing in the world.

After three long days of random screaming and being irritable and argumentative, Atticus said to me as we were driving: “I’m just scared.”

“Of what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, just scared,” he replied.

Those three days were rough – thank goodness for Kat, who laughed at me gently while I cried, so confused as to why my kid seemed so angry.

As we work towards our big move back to my hometown [Bega,Australia] next week, we’re doing it with our kids –

Serious, scientific Atticus wants a book about Australian insects as soon as we arrive and Calllie is mildly worried we’ll fall out of the plane and narrates everything with song.

And Haakon, who I loved so much I wanted there to be more of us. I remember vividly telling Haak in bed in the dark that I was pregnant with Atticus and the words hanging in the silence for awhile.

While I waited for his response, I told myself I could do it by myself.

And I heard a slow smile spread across his face and he said “well, that’s exciting.”

Phewwwww.

I wanted to have kids so we could have those moments of exchanging glances because our kids are so cute/infuriating/amazing/hilarious.

We do get those moments, but I never knew how hard we’d work for them.

Maybe if I’d really known I would’ve opted for no kids and weekends in bed with frothy coffee followed by long hikes and hours of uninterrupted netflix.

But the decision is behind us and I’m so very glad because it’s one that humans have not yet been well equipped to make.

It’s just so big.