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.
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.