How a Ubiquitous Parenting Mantra Can Mess With Your Head

Jacob in dirt.JPG

"The days are long, but the years are short"

So says one of the most ubiquitous mantras of parenting. Unfortunately, you only feel the shortness of the years when you look back from the future. In the present, the long days dominate.

One night recently, my 3-year-old got up at least four times. We argued about milk and snacks and sleeping locations. I pleaded and threatened. In the end, there we were, watching Alvin and the Chipmunks at 2:30 in the morning in the living room while he snacked on goldfish crackers and drank milk from a bottle. Eventually, I fell asleep on the couch and, apparently, he did as well.

This interminable night came on the heels of a marathon Sunday. My wife worked, so she was out of the house by 6:15. She typically doesn’t get home until close to 8:00 at night. The time in between often feels like a lifetime. Spending more than thirteen straight hours alone with three young children can be numbing.

Sure, there are moments of enjoyment and fun and wonder, but such moments are often overshadowed, if not completely overwhelmed, by the relentlessness of mundane household tasks and childcare necessities. Diaper changing, dressing small humans, preparing food, arguing over food, cleaning up food, washing dishes, doing laundry, finding shoes, arguing over shoes, picking up shoes, picking up toys, cleaning up spills, turning on the television, turning off the television, microwaving coffee, restarting the dryer for the seventh time, bathing, arguing about bathing, brushing teeth, arguing about brushing teeth, finding pajamas, waiting impatiently for time to use said pajamas.

Many nights, in the hour or two between when all the kids are finally asleep in their beds and when the 3-year-old gets up for the first time, I look back at the day and get annoyed with myself for being so ungrateful. Here I am with this gift of three children who I love more than anything, yet, my days are often defined by drudgery rather than enjoyment. I scold myself: You’re going to be sad in twenty years when the house is quiet and empty that you didn’t enjoy this more. That you didn’t do more. That you didn’t seize the moments.

And while that could be, it’s impossible to predict. Just as likely, I’ll look back fondly, or, perhaps even more likely, I won’t remember much of it at all. Not the day-to-day. Heck, I don’t remember much about my day-to-day existence two years ago, let alone ten.

The funny thing about an anxious brain, though, is that it tends to reject reasonable reflection. The anxious brain doesn’t like to let itself off the hook. Rather than accepting that, yes, parenting is difficult and I am doing my best in the moment, it is quick to leap to the most damning conclusions.

Similarly, it is my anxious brain that initiates (or at least amplifies) the perceived problem in the first place. For many people, anxiety can manifest as irritability or crankiness. When I’m parenting alone, I am typically existing in a perpetual state of anxiety. The perceived need for constant vigilance leaves me on edge. This anxiety of vigilance often makes me irritable or frustrated so that I am unable to live fully in the moment.

However, when my wife is home or I’ve been away for part of the day, a lot of this fades to the background. I’m much more calm and present when there is not that expanse of unbroken, immersive parenting time stretched out in front of me. For example, I came home one afternoon recently and my wife went out to run errands. It had started raining just as I pulled into the driveway. It was an unusual rain for Florida. Low gray clouds sped across the sky and sheets of fine rain drops billowed down to the ground, buffeted by puffs of wind. Strangely, there was no thunder, so, it was perfect for playing in. The boys rushed out as my car slowed to a stop and quickly started playing in the rain. As they do.

If this would have been one of my full-time, all-alone parenting days, I would have been perturbed. Rather than watching them play and laugh in the rain, I would have been worrying about them getting too dirty and having to get them cleaned off when they came in all while keeping their sister from faceplanting into the pile of mud they constructed by the corner of the house. But, instead, I left them to play, took the baby inside (I was chill, but not so chill that I was going to let the mud in the face thing happen), and started working on dinner. I checked back in on them occasionally as I cooked. They were having the time of their lives. As they often do. Specifically, Jacob told me, while wielding a handful of thick, black mud that I was certain would leave stains on his skin for days, that they were “making chocolate covered ants.” Yes, thankfully it was one of my good days where I could shrug it off and chalk it up as a chance for them to exercise their creativity and boost their immunity.

So, you see, if you’re struggling with this whole parenting gig and feeling overwhelmed or down, it’s important to take a step back and get a wider view. I think you’ll find that, most of the time, your struggles aren’t about you or your shortcomings, but your circumstances. Parenting is hard. And when you do it for long periods of time without a respite or outlet, it can certainly crowd out everything else and ramp up your anxiety (particularly if you are predisposed).

And those short years? It’s probably better not to worry about those. You don’t need more pressure. Just do your best. At least, that’s what I tell myself in my more enlightened moments.

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