Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Before Henry and Midori, I never thought I could harbor such tenderness and such fierce passion for my children. I had no idea of the power of the emotions that would sweep through me once I became a parent. To say that I love my children, that they are my absolute center in this world, is to say nothing at all of the depth of devotion I feel when looking at their tiny faces.
Of course, that is one part of the story. With all that tenderness and adoration comes the late night exhaustion of caring for sick children, the rivalries that send two tots spinning into tantrums, the phases we’d rather forget – Henry’s prolific biting and Midori’s astute use of curse words. All the moments when I was too rushed, too stressed, too caught in the demands of being a working mother and a wife and a business partner to feel those moments of love, or to offer them in return. The frenzied mornings when Henry would spend an hour trying to tug on his coat and find the right shoes that didn’t scrunch his toes and ask me what kind of ears a person would need to have in order to hear God talking, while his sister perched in the doorway to show me her latest yoga posture and I, all the while, was frantically trying to get them in the car before the start of the school day.
The good news is that children are forgiving. They don’t demand perfection. In fact, they expect it less than we, as women and mothers, presuppose. Our children want our undivided attention in bits and pieces, and then to assert their own independence and autonomy the rest of the day. It is in the apex of that doorway – the one where children trust in the steadfast love of mothering enough to be their own persons – that we can find the balance of living.
Recently, The Atlantic published a piece entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.  Author Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Rodham Clinton from 2009 to 2011, writes from personal experience about the reasons women can’t juggle both the demands of a high-powered job and being fully present as parents — at least not with the way America’s economy and society are structured today.
Without delving too much in to the socio-economic argument or the cultural stereotypes that drive Slaughter’s piece, I can tell you that I have found a way to create a work-life balance that benefits me and, vicariously, my children. I’ve structured my time in a way that supports their needs and allows me to be a fully engaged parent while still caring for my own emotional and physical health, and providing me the avenues to pursue my passions and pay the bills. And yes, the dishes get done, and the children are bathed and the house is tidy and the lunches neatly packed and the bellies are full of good foods.
For me, the answer is simple: Structure. Not in a rigid sense, filled with charts and chore lists but, rather, in a fluid way that serves as testament to the fulcrums steadying our love for one another.  In our home, we believe that the most basic community is familial, and thus everyone has a role. I make the supper with the help of my children. Midori sets our table, and Henry clears the plates when we have finished eating. My husband does the dishes as I draw the tub and soap the children. The kids ready themselves each morning, and tidy their rooms while my husband prepares their breakfast and I head out on my morning run. When I return, I clean the kitchen and set out the bentos and backpacks, violins and coats. It’s an unspoken contract between us all – that we will help one another in a way that inspires peace and calm each of our days. It’s something of a dance, with everyone knowing their part, assuming their role without question or debate.
This conformity to habit has given my children a sense of predictability in a spontaneous world. At the same time, it has provided my husband and me the freedom to do the things we most love. We make time to exercise, to eat well, to come together at day’s end. Before we became parents, each of us had a life. Though we worked hard, we found ways to relax, to express ourselves, to relieve tension. So many women lament to me the guilt they experience when leaving their children to go to the gym, or to take a long walk. They forget that being a mother does not mean practicing parenthood every moment of every day. We do our children no favors when our lives revolve around only their needs.
My own mother worked in the home, which is to say that she was a “stay at home mother.” She spent every moment tending to her children, through bitterness and exhaustion and resentment. In the process, she became unhealthy, obese, sedentary. By the end of her life, which came much too soon, she was bedridden and unable to be fully present for her children and grandchildren. She missed recitals and graduations, births and deaths, celebrations and accolades because she had forfeited herself to the role of being a parent. I told my husband that I would gladly have traded 20 hours a week with my mother in exchange for 20 years of her living. She never knew she was making that trade. She knew only that she was a wholly devoted parent, and that she never felt the guilt of leaving us with a sitter.
I make time to exercise every single day. My husband also fits a daily workout in to his schedule.  In the process, we model to our kids the value of physical activity, and the need to take time to tend to the personal. When I return to my home after a weekend away, racing my bike, I come back to my children renewed and ready to tackle the exhausting work of parenting.
When we back away from our attempts to be paragons, we give our children an incredible gift.
The idea of “parental perfection” is predicated on the notion that children require constant attention, and that it is the job of the parent – and primarily the mother – to be always available. Children inhale our worry about doing everything the “right” way and, in the process, we deprive children a sense of much needed security. We inadvertently instruct them that they are helpless, incapable, and incompetent. By contrast, when we enlist them as allies, we teach them that they are valued members of a community, and they derive a real sense of esteem from contributing to the running of the home. Chores give kids a meaningful way to demonstrate competency and autonomy while simultaneously easing the burden on overworked parents. In modeling for them how we, their parents, can take time for ourselves to be healthy and distribute the work of running a home, we help our children understand that everyone has value.

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