It was my birthday on Tuesday, and my wife and I went for a mid-morning Indian Head Massage.
We have fairly tightly-defined routines that allow us to check-in briefly a couple of times a day, but not much more. In contrast, on Tuesday morning, all we could do was sit comfortably whilst two therapists gently rubbed our scalps. When our time was up, I turned to my wife and saw someone who was – for that moment – without concern, burden, appointment, or attendant children.
My wife’s gift to me was time and space to replenish our capacities. We didn’t talk about the girls, except to laugh at them. We didn’t discuss anything or check in with our lists of outstanding tasks. After the massage, we ate cake. We sat in the sun. We basked.
The result of all this pampering of ourselves and neglect of our children? Better parenting! Our capacity to juggle contradictory demands, to get through the tasks on the timeline, to be the way we wanted to be was vastly increased by this time-out. It was the sunshine in the morning, the ruffling of our hair, the sweet taste of excellent cakes – all the physical sensations of well-being – that allowed our bodies to withstand the usual challenges of family life without melting down, bracing ourselves, or getting short & snappy in the name of bedtime.
I am normally prone to succumb by the end of the day to at least one parental outburst (if I’m having a good day, it’s silent) – even when the girls are minding their own business, just because of the tight routines that we have in place. If not outburst, then absolute collapse at the end of the day. Neither strikes me as particularly skilful. I want to navigate my week, my wife, my business, and my family without over-engaging (usually becoming authoritarian, or where that fails aggressive) or under-engaging (collapsing, stomping off in the huff of one who knows far better but is being ignored).
When I’m at my best, not only can I handle the challenges in front of me, I can stretch large enough to notice how my children are pushing in order to learn how much they can rely on me. In other words, it’s not only good for me (i.e. my health doesn’t suffer from distress), but it helps my children to learn about and navigate their world too. In those moments, I have a presence in my family that my children know they can lean on.
My wife and I often wonder what the teenage years will be like, and we agree that we want our daughters to be able to talk to us about anything. Anything. Yet, when I’m frustrated, busy, overwhelmed, tired, careless or unawares, I don’t welcome them talking about anything and everything – I arbitrarily judge the conversation to be nonsense, time-wasting, noise pollution based on its relevance for me, not its relevance to them. And in that instant, I have failed to be able to listen to their anything. I silently and invisibly tack “worth my while” on to the end of the intention. And that message is sent forth.
Now, this isn’t the right moment for a guilt-fest (can we make that appointment?). I don’t blame myself for this drawing-in of my limits, this lessening of my capacity. It’s just what happens as I sail through the day’s choppy waters. At the same time, I do wish to notice that it’s happening and to reverse it. If I’m off-course, I want to be aware enough to notice, get my bearings, and continue back on track.
Parenting is complicated. Seriously so. Despite the claims of thousands of parenting gurus, it’s not possible to handle every possible scenario; indeed, they pile on the pressure by encouraging us to think that it is possible, if only we were better. Nonetheless, we can look after ourselves and our children by considering our approach to things going awry – if we can maintain our capacity to be calm (even, be joyful) when our plans are being torn apart, we are sending this vital message: even though you are not cooperating with me, I love you, and we are fundamentally okay whatever arises.
Tuesday reminded me that, by looking after myself, I increase my capacity to look after my children. All the gurus say it; parents usually overlook it. But, surely, nothing in the parenting books is more important than that.