My values don't need to be my obligations.
I started out parenting full of ideals. I am a proud owner of a liberal arts degree and I spent a few years working on organic farms, so you can easily imagine the slightly puritanical work ethic surrounding all of my many values. I’ve got a strong streak of anti-capitalism, anti-materialism, anti-patriarchal leanings which in my adulthood were expressed by maintaining a prolific veggie garden, preparing tasty food from scratch, spending lots of time outside, reading, and making things. Doing all these things felt meaningful to crafting a loving home where we live with some intention to the way we live in the world. I wanted to provide my kid with a home where these values were central to our lives. I imagined making our own baby food, wonder-filled outdoor experiences, putting together charming child crafts, and making precious handmade items to adorn my child and her room. Sounds snappy, right?
What I did end up doing was cleaning up a lot of spit up, supporting my daughter’s mama when she had a low supply of breastmilk, trying out different brands of formula, preparing frozen food for meals I could eat with one hand, and learning the talent of packing a diaper bag for the day without forgetting anything (this involves seeing into the future to anticipate any need when out of the house, nbd). It’s not that I didn’t know parenting would be hard. I expected the first year to be vulva to the wall with a wailing child and no sleep. I was pleasantly surprised when that wasn’t our experience. It was the ongoing slog of little things like googling why is my baby taking a 5 hour nap, googling why is my baby taking a 13 minute nap, researching preschools, deciding whether or not we’d be a santa family, and packing proper snacks for an outing that took up a surprising amount of time and brain space. Every now and then I’d glance up from the minutiae of everyday and remember the home cooked meals I wasn’t preparing, the garden I neglected, the things I wasn’t making. It felt like I was constantly falling short of my values and as a result my kid wasn’t having the experience I had envisioned. To add to the pressure, I felt like I was surrounded by people who could do it all (eff off, social media). They wore their baby, made a gourmet pie from organic blueberries grown in their own Montessori-themed yard, and posted pictures to pinterest in the time it took me to massage a fart out of my kid’s bum.
The thing is, my values were crushing me. I constantly felt like a failure who couldn’t measure up. I couldn’t keep up with all the things that felt important to me. When I was able to get something done, I felt rigid and joyless. In order to accomplish one of these homemakey things, I had to ban my family from the kitchen and bust through gettin ‘er done. I had turned my values into stressful obligations. It doesn’t take me more than one Victorian novel to get that obligation and corsets contribute to a terrible situation when combined, but are pretty bad on their own too.
If my values were a forest, I went for the old timey slash and burn strategy and left none standing. I wanted to start with a clean slate and the understanding that I have a family that should be fed sometimes and that I want to hang out with. Starting with this as my foundation rather than a degree from a liberal arts college and a few years farming feels very different. With a clean slate, it was easier to establish with clarity what few things are actually important to me: quality time with my family (undistracted, no nagging obligations), time for rest and play together as a family, and time for rest and play for each of us on our own. That was it. If we had spaghetti with frozen meatballs and sauce from a jar every night of the week, no one was going to suffer. If the garden became a weed zone, we would sniff the weedy flowers. If I didn’t make something by hand, the world would likely continue.
With less pressure, I finally became the parent I wanted to be. I could pay full attention to my family without weird feelings of stress, failure, or guilt nagging me. Yeah, I’m not parenting the way I thought I would. My home isn’t brimming with homemade goodness and charm. But I do get more time to be silly and go on adventures with my daughter. Relaxing some of the pressure means I get to be more present and real with my child. And I will take that over any exhaustingly idyllic life.