Mistaking Activity for Happiness

I can’t remember if it was Bruce or Lindsey who first introduced me to the writing of the marvelous Katrina Kenison.  But since I know they are both fellow acolytes, I don’t hesitate to thank them jointly for bringing Katrina’s writing into my life.

I spent many of my quiet, before-bed hours this past month reading, then rereading, then rereading again Katrina’s first book, Mitten Strings for God.  In it, Katrina combines personal reflections from when her boys were just older than mine are now with wisdom from philosophers and fellow parents to offer her readers an alternative to the fast-paced, hyper-competitive rat race that so many of us feel like we’re running.  Unlike some books of its ilk, Mitten Strings is not an indictment of parents and their choices, but rather an invitation to consider walking another path.

So resonant were Katrina’s anecdotes and so profound her wisdom that I suspect that I will return to Mitten Strings in a future post.  But today I want to share the one theme that struck me most deeply, one that had me underlining my text, grabbing the nearest stack of Post-it notes, and scribbling the myriad ways in which I had fallen into the trap Katrina warns of.

According to Katrina,

[I]n our efforts to make each moment ‘count,’ we seem to have lost the knack of appreciating the ordinary.  We provide our children with so much that the extraordinary isn’t special anymore, and the subtle rhythms of daily life elude us altogether.  We do too much and savor too little.  We mistake activity for happiness, and so we stuff our children’s days with activities, and their heads with information, when we ought to be feeding their souls instead.

Mistaking activity for happiness?  Welcome to my world.

As an introduction, let me give you a breakdown of our weekday mornings:

  • Monday: 2-3 year old story and craft time at the library
  • Tuesday: Big Boy goes to preschool; Tiny Baby and I do the week’s grocery shopping
  • Wednesday: baby story time at the library
  • Thursday: Big Boy goes to preschool; Tiny Baby and I go to baby playgroup
  • Friday: big kid playgroup

Given the fact that my kids both nap in the afternoons and, these days at least, spend much of their post-nap, pre-dinner time with a babysitter while I’m at physical therapy, there are very few moments during the week when we are together, just playing and reading and being.  We’re always coming or going or eating meals or getting ready for bed.

My kids are really little – 3 and 18 months.  And I’m planning their childhoods out from under them.  And why?

Because I want so desperately to be around other people that I’d rather push my my baby around Kroger than sit on the floor and do puzzles with him.

My heart is sinking as I write that sentence, but it is the truth.  The cold reality of it.

Lest I beat myself up too much, I will say that my boys don’t seem to find any of these activities onerous.  All of them are fun and developmentally appropriate.  And being a stay-at-home mother can be wrenchingly isolating.  And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to connect with other parents while my kids connect with theirs (i.e. wrestle Duplo blocks out of each other’s hands under the guise of “sharing”).

But, in truth, we’re doing these things for me and not for them.  I need routine, I need structure, I need to see other 30- and 40-something women sitting cross-legged across the floor from me while our kids ramble around us.

And I suspect that that would be all fine and well – for now, at least – if it really made me happy.  But I feel the hollowness of it.  Like there is space inside of me that could be filled with something purer.  And this stuff doesn’t fill it.  I know that I’m rushing us through our days, rushing them through their babyhoods for the veneer of happiness only, for the satisfaction of sticking to a schedule.

So today I’m going to try something different.  Husband will take Big Boy to preschool and Tiny Baby and I will stay home.  We’ll play outside if the November sun will tame the wind for long enough.  We’ll share a snack and a puzzle.  And I’ll see if – for today at least – I can be enough for him and he can be enough for me.

Do you ever feel like – to borrow a phrase from Katrina – your agenda is starving your soul?

Photo: Running child by -JosephB- via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

64 responses to “Mistaking Activity for Happiness

  1. Hi Kristen — I haven’t left a comment on your blog for quite some time although I read every single post because it comes into my inbox.

    Today’s post made an impact on me particularly because I would give anything to be able to “mistake activity for happiness”. I miss doing stuff, on my own and with others. I spend far too much time with myself and my thoughts.

    I think what struck me today as I was reading your post was how difficult it is for most of us to find the perfect balance in our lives. We always seem to be doing too much or too little. What I love about you is that you have the ability to take yourself out of the frame in order to see the picture of your life. It’s a quality that many people lack.

    I sincerely hope that you enjoyed your day with your little baby.

    • Thank you for your sweet words, Tracy, and for the reminder that we humans always seem to want what we haven’t got. I think you’re right: it’s all about that inevitable question of balance. I’m not sure that I ever feel like I’ve struck a balance in my life, with my kids or even in my own head. I suppose all we can do is keep trying and keep asking questions – and to try to enjoy ourselves as much as possible along the way.

  2. YES. YES, yes, yes. And I have adamantly (over?) – corrected, in favor of lots of time doing nothing. And that is hard for me sometimes. I get snappy and short, long for time with my computer. But I also believe in it.
    For me the hardest part is feeling out of sync with other parents. And sometimes fending off Grace and Whit’s demands for WHY they can’t go to this party (because I think one party a weekend per kid is PLENTY, and because I want then sitting in the kitchen in their pajamas with me on Sunday) and why they can’t do another activity (because our family rule is one per week). But just as often, they choose to hang out with me. Last year Grace chose to do no after-school activities one term, because she wanted to go to the park and look at trees with me (my heart sang when she told me this).
    Now, my concern has shifted. I start worrying what concrete skills I’m depriving my children of, and if I’m setting them up for a lifetime where they don’t get into any schools of their choosing because they are not violin prodigies or fluent in Mandarin. Just this week at Grace’s conference I shared my concern with her teachers about our lack of programming, and my anxiety about the fact that so many of her classmates go to extra tutoring, etc. I asked them if they would tell me if we should be doing this. Her experienced, 60 year old 2nd grade teacher looked me in the eye and said: No. Do what you’re doing. Let her be a kid.
    And so, for another day, I believe.

    Sorry for the long comment. I adore Katrina as you know! xox

    • I can only imagine, Lindsey, how much more acute this question becomes as kids get older. At a different point in Mitten Strings, Katrina addresses the question of fear and how our own anxieties can drive our kids into an over-scheduled maelstrom of a life. I know that – as much as I hope to avoid it – I will start worrying about what my kids will need to do to compete with their peers (especially as school admissions criteria get ever more demanding/outrageous) and I hope I will be able to ask myself then, “What am I really afraid of?” That their lack of a “resume” will reflect poorly on me? That their admission to School X instead of School Y will doom them to a life of misery and poverty? I don’t want to live, or raise kids, in an atmosphere of fear or “What if?”, but now, of course, I worry that I’m overthinking things at such an early stage of their lives.

      Woe is me. To be able to turn off the brain might be nice every now and then. 🙂

      • I was late to the game of worrying that my kids had enough going on in their lives; as a solo mother (divorced years and years ago) it’s my responsibility for everything and, admittedly, getting them into afterschool activities hasn’t been a priority. But now that my son is 18 and preparing to move into adulthood after graduating next June, I find myself angry that I didn’t do more. I should have forced the clarinet lessons more. I shouldn’t have let him quit acting classes. I should have taught him to drive. I should have pushed him more in school.

        It’s a tough balance and while my son has grown into a fine young man, kind and affable, he isn’t going to any fancy 4-year college right away. He may travel the world a bit, spend more time volunteering abroad. And I have to be happy about that.

        Sometimes, though, I wish I could go back and be a little more activity-driven if only to give him a leg up. But I would never exchange that for the happiness we’ve had together.

        It’s interesting to me, how different things seem from the other end of the child-rearing years.

        • Hi, Teresa, and thanks for stopping by.

          I think you bring up the magic word here: “balance.” So many of us struggle with it. How much is too much? How much is not enough? In your case, it sounds like you have a healthy and happy son and that is no mean feat!

  3. I don’t think that pushing the cart around at Kroger is overprogramming. Nor is spending the morning reading/playing/bopping each other on the heads with Duplo blocks. If it makes you a saner person to parent in proximity to other moms, do it — it’s not like you’re dropping them off at Mandarin and hovering outside, anxiously awaiting the moment when they can create the five tones of “Ma” correctly.

    I have never been there, but I can only imagine from your writing and your mindful parenting that there is plenty-o-zen in your household. The moments over dinner when you are laughing together. The squishiness of oatmeal spread on the highchair tray. The songs you sing in the car on the way home from Kroger.

    If you feel more relaxed doing a few things during the week, do them. If you feel more stressed — or if your children appear more stressed — then don’t. You don’t have to spend your time gazing into your child’s eyes to be connected. You just need to notice the comedy, the pathos, the specific identity of each of them while you are doing what makes you all shine.

    Don’t be hard on yourself… Trust, trust, trust. You’re probably doing exactly what Kenison says you should be, if you just describe your week to yourself a little differently.

    • Oh, Launa, thank you for this. After posting this morning I reread my piece and tried to think about my life with my kids from another perspective. And I know that you’re right in my heart: that ours is not the life that would be held up as the scary example of overprogramming.

      I think that this pregnancy (and, probably, the hormones that come with it) has made me even more aware of how quickly my kids are growing up. And how much I want to savor the time I do have with them. But I know that the best moments with them don’t usually come from planning bonding activities, but rather from the impromptu chaos of those car trips and oatmeal smears.

      Thanks for the reminder to cut myself some slack. I’m good about being kind to others, less good about being kind to myself.

  4. Kristen. I feel I have SO MUCH TO SAY. And I’m nodding, like Lindsey in gesture of YES YES YES. All of this, it’s the my whole problem. To be honest, I know it deep down but I can’t seem to shake it, to change it. This part: “Because I want so desperately to be around other people that I’d rather push my my baby around Kroger than sit on the floor and do puzzles with him.” Yes again. And the guilt of that feeling, it suffocates me.

    I think, I hope that if we all spend a little time thinking about it, acknowledging it, recognizing how prevalent it is, we can feel less alone and punish ourselves less for it. I also think it’s important to remember your needs too. If you need to get out and have adult stimulation it is so much better to do that than to deprive yourself of it. Your children need quiet time, yes, but you need to feel whole.
    It brings us all back to the discussion of balance. And information. There is too much of it. I think as mothers we have been conditioned to do what is expected and less what feels natural.
    I could go on and on and I’m always here to chat with you about it. Always.

    P.S. Now I have ANOTHER book to read 🙂

    • There it is again: balance. I feel like everything I think about and write about lately gets me back to that issue.

      Thank you for reading and for relating, and for helping me feel like I’m not a bad mother, just an ordinary one. The funny part, of course, is that Katrina’s book doesn’t have that “you should be doing this” tone that bothers me in a lot of other books I’ve read. But there was something so intoxicating about the idea of having these magical moments with my kids that I felt compelled to evaluate and reevaluate my approach. I’ll see where it takes me.


  5. Oh My! I read your post and Lindsey’s reply and… this is exactly where I struggled as a parent; in the land of this tug-of-war. All for naught, I might add.

    Because now that my children are older they have minds of their own. My daughter is far more homebody and chooses to linger next to the kitchen counter talking about the nothingness of life while I clean up or cook. Oh the BIG moments we’ve had in the middle of that nothingness!

    And my son is busy. He’s always grabbing something and heading off into the woods eager for adventures he makes for himself. Sitting still isn’t in his vocabulary.

    So, I could no more make these kids into hangers-outers or social butterflies if I wanted to. They are who they are.

    I didn’t LOVE connecting with my babes during the day times at home. But each of my kids and I connected well at the bagel store or the library or the swimming pool. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to connect with my kids. It was that I did feel issolated at home. Consequently, once I got out of there, if I gave my focus to my child, I felt I had a lot to offer. Then, in the evenings, I was pretty golden for stories because I love that. I guess it boiled down to doing things with my kids I enjoyed. I’m not a big lego fan, but I love to swim and play in the snow.

    • That last paragraph? That’s me to a T (with the exception of my preferring Legos to swimming). Thanks for showing me that that sort of early childhood can produce both homebodies and rolling stones. 🙂

  6. Oh God this is SOOOO me, Kristen. I am forever busi-fying my own life (and those of my kids) because I’m so terrified of stillness. It’s the main reason that I stopped working on Saturdays (which are still insanely busy, but at least computer-free) because I just dont ever slow down. It’s great that you can recognize this in yourself and I don’t think you should feel guilty for wanting adult-stimulation in your life. There is nothing wrong with that-all those other moms sitting there cross legged want it to!!

    Delia Lloyd

  7. My kids go to a Waldorf school and I also work there. In that philosophy, while they advise against over-schedululing, they also encourage a rhythm. The rhythm definitely includes free time/free play, an outing whether it be play group, library time or a walk to the park/in the woods, snack/lunch time, nap time, etc. It seems to me that an outing a day is probably just fine, it’s just when we try to fill every second with activity that we “starve our soul.”
    Great post, I will definitely check this book out. Another great book on this subject (that also broaches our home life and toys, etc.) is “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne.

    • Hi Tessa – Thanks so much for visiting Motherese and taking the time to leave a comment.

      In Mitten Strings, Katrina does mention Rudolf Steiner and the Waldorf approach so I am very grateful to hear your personal perspective on it. Thanks too for mentioning the Payne book. I’ll have to check that one out.

  8. I have been having these same feelings. Why do I feel like cleaning up the kitchen will make me happier than sitting on the floor racing match box cars. I used to sit and play so much more with my first son and now I let the two of them enjoy each other, which I know is also good. But I know lately it has been weighing heavy on my head and heart. This post makes me feel more confident in my choice to skip the MOMS club member meeting this morning and stay in our slippers and play Candyland. It is hard to balance and find what gives us sanity and fulfillment but also leaves us feeling like we connected with our children the best that we could at the end of the day. An endless struggle…Thanks for a great post.

  9. I see Katrina’s point about living in the moment and relishing whats simple and slow. But. If you go to story time at the library every week, then that becomes ‘the ordinary’ doesn’t it? And I don’t see how that isn’t nourishing the soul (or a play date for that matter). Those moments when you connect with one of your kids happen at random times – even at the grocery store! I think being present in the moment of whatever you’re doing is a more important goal than un-scheduling your life (geez, am I a Gretchen Rubin disciple or what?).

    Of course, everything you said resonates completely with my own life. Just don’t want you thinking I’ve got this down or don’t struggle with same issues! And, totally, the play groups (and even sometimes the new toys) are so much more about me than her, sadly! Great post, as always!

    • Hello, my fellow Rubin-ite!

      I think I would feel better about all of the stuff that we do if I didn’t know I do it all just to hang out with other grown-ups (i.e. I’m filling up those hours of kid time with so many other people that I’m unlikely to have any special moments with them). Is that so bad? Probably not. But I do want to be better about attending to them during the times when we are home and together – more hanging out and singing silly songs and less returning phone calls and checking email.

  10. I’ve been touching upon this topic as well lately, and I need to pick up that book! Our schedules DO starve our kids, and I’m so very guilty of it. We’ve been trying to cut back, and you’re right to do this now while they’re so small. The activities pile up when they’re older, and it’s so hard to say no, because they’re all worth ways to spend time. But when you do it all, nothing is worthy, if that makes sense. You dilute your life. I’m working on it!

  11. This is obviously what I did wrong. I sat on the floor and did puzzles, because I hate going out and dealing with people.

    So I have four puzzle loving introverts. Gosh.

    (I will claim it’s at least partly genetic. I swear, it is.)

  12. My daughter is three, almost four. She goes to preschool three times a week for two hours in the mornings. On Tuesdays we have a play date with her best friend, alternating between our home and her little friends and Monday nights she does a swim class. For me that is more than enough organized activity. Thursday is our day to just do nothing, or do something but do it together. Our afternoons are always free time to just play or be together. My daughter is a homebody and still loves to play with me and be around me, so I am trying to relish every moment because I know these days of her wanting just that are limited and she is my only one. But being at home all day can be wearing on mother and child, going out for a walk or to Kroger breaks up the day.

    I think Kristen the real difference between life with children today and of old is that it is our children who are isolated. At my daughter’s age I would be sent out to play, in our street, all day long. It was a quiet culdesac and there were lots of other children to play with. Children don’t do those things anymore, or if they play outside the parents are with them, riding their bikes alongside. So we as parents pick up the mantel of friendship and playmate or else ferry our children to organized play dates (did not exist when I was a child) or activities.

    • I think you make such an important point, Jane, about the ways in which our kids’ childhoods are by definition different than ours were. I too grew up on a quiet cul de sac and spent lots of time playing outside with my brothers and other kids from the neighborhood (especially during the summer). I remember going over to friends’ houses to play, but never on “play dates.” Our parents were chauffeurs, but not cruise directors as many of us are now.

  13. I don’t believe in over-scheduling my children and we often spend our days at home. The kids do puzzles, play chef, create elaborate costumes and then wage war on inanimate objects. We live in an area with a mild climate, so there’s lots of sending them out to play together. They also do a lot of nothing.

    I am not necessarily always there with them in the floor or at the play kitchen or helping them dream up the costumes. They play together, alone, and with me in different amounts. I encourage them to be independent and to entertain each other. I enjoy them, but I’m not their playmate.

    They are not over scheduled, but I am. I’m working on letting go some of my roles as I know I took them on to feel important — never realizing that my importance is determined by how much I do or how much I have or what burdens I carry. That is my project.

  14. Top o’ the morning to you, Kristen. The image I had in my mind as I read these words was of Katrina, Lindsey and I (and Tracy, Rebecca and everyone else who cares to join for an imaginary play date) all around you, quietly interested, and actively engaged in your own imaginal life.

    Just as kids must develop their sense of individual self (and thus a balance of mirroring and of socializing is the general path), we grown-ups have the chance (often born of suffering and confusion, loneliness and seeking) to make our souls (this calls for moments where nothing much appears to be happening: quiet, perhaps lonely, at least at first).

    Whatever might have gone missing in our childhoods comes around now as a wound that can heal and transform us. But is really must become, if not fun, at least radically accepted—as it is, for what it is; then it is free to change (or not). You have a good imagination, but when alone (or in the face of the child that evokes who you once were and cannot really remember, but carry pain around) you seem to get a little wobbly.

    We “virtual” pals are reading, we are listening, we are with you—trust your so-called imagination and discover that your loneliness is more an artifact of the ego (that which wants to drive, control, decide) while your deeper soul-Self waits eternally for you to begin your authentic play—to celebrate the mere fabulousness of simply being.

    I had times of crumbly despair when my kids were young, but I better remember the games of pretending the floor was lava and the chairs islands, or the crumbling Honda Civic being a space ship and the market a planet we went to visit. My hunch is that your children are your teachers and that the lesson at hand is how to truly play.

    Do not, however, on any account, “TRY” to play: either play or don’t play. Namaste 🙂

  15. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to fully express how I feel in response to this post because my reaction is still swirling around in my head at the moment.

    I’ve always cherised my years as a stay-at-home mom when my boys were younger. But until now I never realized just how lucky I was with my situation. I was an Army wife. My then husband was out in the field training more than he was home. I was essentially the sole caregiver. We lived in the middle-of-nowhere-Louisiana. We have very little extra money to spend on outside activities.

    The boys and I lived life at our own pace and it worked for us. Overscheduling was never an issue. Now I see some parents who do that with their children and I know that lifestyle isn’t for me. But I didn’t realize that parents worry about it.

    Yea, I’m not articulating my thoughts well. But I agree with Bruce… don’t “try” to play. Just let things happen. And don’t be so hard on yourself!

  16. There are times I look at the calendar and make judgements about myself and/or relationships with others- based on how full or empty it is. I can’t seem to find a happy medium! How much is not enough, just right , or too much? What it comes down to- for me- is this: what kind of emotional driver is dictating my life at that particular moment? And I am not sure if I can / should control them. What will give me a sense of accomplishment? Is it cramming in as much as possible? Or taking my time? Or reading as many books as possible to my child? Or spending hours cleaning something extremely thoroughly? Or really fast? When it comes to my baby- even though she’s only 6 months old and we’re not that experienced;)–, I find that when I start to feel flustered or overwhelmed- I ask myself what is best for her at that moment. It might be easier to think in the short term, because she is so young. (I am not sure what to expect in the future!) Sometimes it’s just nice to sit and bang blocks together…… When in doubt, I just give her kisses!

  17. When I read Katrina’s quote, I thought of a different scenario that I see my friends with kids a little bit older than mine getting into where their evenings and weekends are filled with soccer games and basketball games and plays and you name it. Each time I hear of their Saturday agenda, I think of myself with that plan and cringe. I don’t want my 5-year old playing soccer and attending some cultural event, but if everyone else is doing it and that is the age you have to start at in sports to be successful, am I going to succumb to the pressure and do the same?

    Anyway, I appreciate your struggles as well. I never feel like I am doing the right thing. If I clean too much, I feel like I am wasting time I could spend with my daughter. If I play too much, the messiness of the house starts to suffocate me. I don’t think there is anything wrong with accomplishing chores like groceries or dishes with your kids around as long as that is not all you do. I certainly don’t have all of the answers and struggle as much as anyone else but it is good to be cognizant of these thoughts and how we are spending out time.

    As always, thanks for another great topic to ponder.

  18. I’ve never stayed home with my daughter (except for the 3 months of maternity leave) but even then I can imagine the isolation that one feels when staying home with kids all day. I think it’s important that we balance our needs with that of our kids so that we’re ALL happy when we spend time together. And it looks like your kids enjoy the playdates and the shopping just fine, and if you get something out of it too, that’s a win-win.

    I don’t think we need to feel guilty for making choices that work well for our own needs as long as we’re no neglecting that of our kids or partner. The activities you listed here still says that you’re doing this with them – so what if you’re not doing a one-on-one playtime? Being a stay-at-home mom, I’m sure they still get plenty of opportunities for personalized attention.

    My daughter sees me 2-3 hours a day during the week and and on weekends, we usually just stick to one scheduled activity and for the rest of the time, she’ll either follow us on our chores or we’ll hang out at home or meet friends for playdates. Unfortunately, we have to cram a lot of what we can’t do during the week in the space of two days but we’re still respectful of her nap time, meal times and bed time. We are probably afforded far less opportunity for one-on-one time than most parents who can stay home with their kids but we make the best of the time we do get to spend with each other. As a result, we are happier parents and our daughter seems pretty well-adjusted too.

    It’s all in the balance I think, and it’s OK to want things for yourself every now and then. If your kids get to benefit too (e.g. playdates) why not?

  19. First off – I’m so glad to know that you loved “Mitten Strings.” It’s on my Christmas list, and if it doesn’t show up under the tree I’ll just go buy it! The praises being sung for K.K. in this neck of the blogging woods have become to loud for me to ignore.

    Secondly – Like many of your other commenters this post hit home with me. IEP stays home with a nanny, so he isn’t involved in nearly as many organized activities as daycare kids. He’s two (today!) and I think is right on track. Nevertheless, I feel pangs of guilt when I hear that my friends’ kids of the same age are counting to ten, singing the alphabet song, etc. I have to stop in these moments and remember that when he’s applying to college NO ONE is going to tsk-tsk at him for having been 2.5 when he learned to count insteand of 2.

    My husband and I have had numerous conversations about what is the right amount of “stuff” for a young kid to be involved in. In the context of an abstract conversation we’ve found it difficult to find our definition of the right balance. But we take heart in the fact that we both believe strongly in family time and letting kids be kids. (I was equally heartened by Lindsey’s comment that Grace’s teacher endorses her “under-programming” decisions.)

    One last thing I would offer here is in response to your comment about grocery trips. (Pardon me while I channel my mother… eeek!) By taking Tiny Baby along to the store he learns that he is a part of something. He is a part of your family and that means having groceries, among other things. If your world regularly stops to yield to his then he learns that he is the center of everything. There may be moments when such a belief is fine for a kid (birthdays, school plays, little league playoffs, etc.) but I suspect it’s not the paradigm you want your boys walking around with on a daily basis. Additionally, your time at Kroger can be equally valuable to him as time at home with puzzles. Lord knows there is much to see in a grocery store. Maybe it can be an adventure, rather than an obligation?

    The mere fact that you’re asking these tough questions is evidence that you’re doing it all right. I’m thankful for your voice in my life.

  20. Friends – I am moved by all of your thoughtful comments today. I appreciate your support, your gentle chiding, and your reminders that my experience mirrors that of so many others.

    As lonely as I might sometimes feel in my current profession, I know that I would feel ten times more so if it weren’t for this generous community I am so lucky to be part of. Thank you.

  21. I’ve wanted to respond all day, but time was not on my side. (over scheduled)
    I think .I need to read that book. We do spend so much time (and money) getting and doing that wee forget how to just be.
    Still, when Grace was young, I needed outings, to get out of my head, to hear adults speak. To hear anyone speak. My husband travelled a lot back then. I found myself refreshed and able to focus on her through the outings. At home, I can be derailed from play by the dishes and the laundry, and now the computer (ahem, time to get off again), so making the effort to focus on what is happening for me is as much a struggle no matter where we go.
    Now with two and worse, with full time school, I have to be very conscious of where I spend my moments.

  22. Oh, Kristen. What a poignant post. And another one that reminds me how parallel different kinds of parenting struggles and guilt really are. My guilt lies mostly in being away from home so much without my son, and in giving him too few opportunities to play with his peers. It’s tough to strike that balance, when you’re looking most weeks at just two days. And when I do get more time off to stay at home, I schedule more – or distract myself at home more – than I envisioned when I planned the staycation.
    (I say rock the Kroger, too! I love our trips to the grocery now, because Jack finds them so interesting that it doesn’t feel like a chore.)
    Sometimes I feel exactly as though my agenda is starving my soul, and the soul of my family. But more and more, I’m just trying to get through the busiest times and balance them out with laid-back days, afternoons or nights together. As long as we’re all feeling happy and supported, I try to feel content.

  23. Oh lady… you know how I feel. I love the scheduled unscheduledness 😉 that we have worked into the calendar more often than not.

    That being said… I’m going to throw the ugly B word out there. It’s really all about balance. I’m not myself if I see too much of other people, or not enough of other people. (meaning, friends for playdates, story hour, etc…) And if mama’s not happy and herself, the kids take note and our days get much more frustrating. So it’s finding that balance of how much time with others you need, and making that quality time. Not playdates to fill the time, but playdates that are beneficial for everyone.

    Don’t beat yourself up because you need interaction other than just your kids. You know yourself, and what you need 🙂 Especially adding a third in the mix it’s got to play heavily on your mind how to structure your days in the next year or so. But be kind to yourself, and do what you need to do. As long as you’re doing that, the kids will benefit, and things fall into place.

  24. You know, sometimes all that we do is not enough, and even small amounts of good stuff can make you feel hollow. Because the reality is that none of us really know what we are doing. Our children did not come with an instructional manual tucked under their arm. We are not trained in mothering the way we are in other aspects of our life. So, yes, sometimes, we are fumbling in the dark.

    But, you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. My kids get the best that I can give them, emotionally. There are days when I totally miss the mark, there are days when I hit the target. It doesn’t make me better or worse as a mother. It just means that I am struggling to do the best for them, for me, for us as a family.

    Kristen, you are the best mother you can be for your kids. And you know how I know that, even though we have never met? Because you constantly question to find a better way. You change the things you can and embrace the stuff that works. And that can’t be wrong!

    Hugs to you, friend. We are all in the same boat. All we can do is keep rowing and enjoy the beauty of the ride!

  25. Forgive me for getting here a bit late. There is so much wisdom in this seemingly simple concept. In my “past life” as a married mother of two little boys, working partially outside the home, then working from a home office, I was often the backup “mom on the street” while other working couples had their kids chauffeured and slotted into near daily activities. When some logistical snag came up, I was there (and glad to be there). And I watched the crazy schedules of 3-year olds and 4-year olds and 7-year olds and on and on, and I simply said no.

    Limiting activities doesn’t mean you give up routine – or even your ability to have a little time for your own pursuits. Believe me, you can structure that without falling into the activity trap.

    I needed routine, and we had it. But it didn’t involve running kids all over town. For one thing, it would’ve been impossible to manage with my own schedule. And for another, I wanted my kids to just be. There were definitely activities, but not more than one/week until they were in 5th grade, then not more than 2/week. And it wasn’t until high school that it changed again.

    That’s a choice we make – or not – as parents. And we make those choices at each stage. I did what felt right for my children and my way of raising them, not to mention my own sanity. I’m sure they missed out on some things that their friends didn’t. But they didn’t miss out on being kids.

    Sorry to run on; it’s something I feel very strongly about. And believe me, my sons are no less able to “compete” having had all that kid time, rather than planned activities from toddlerhood on.

    Thank you for bringing this very important concept to the fore – here.

  26. That’s a thought to munch on for the next couple of days. I find myself wanting to skip or look down on the ordinary things and then scrambling to find all those things that seem extraordinary. I guess I’ve been doing it wrong. Or at least, not right. Exactly. Thanks for sharing!

  27. Oh Kristen. Thank you. Your honesty (and bravery) in speaking your truth resonates over the ethers. I, too, feel this same way. I abhorred not enjoying all the time puzzling and playing–but I thought I should. So instead, when my tots were little bittys, we’d go to Target. We’d go to anywhere…just to be there.

    And now, as you and Lindsey conversed about above, it’s the societal push to have my kids do more more more when I feel that we should have space to be. Space to make smores. See the sunset. Read a book. Talk about a tough playground situation. Time for me to actually look into their eyes as they’re asking me a question and time for me to actually, truly, answer. My husband and I try to navigate the right answer for us and for each of our kids….and it’s not as easy as I’d hoped.

    Not too surprisingly, reading Katrina’s second book, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, shone a peaceful, intuitive light on the angst I feel about these decisions.

    Thank you for a truly thought provoking post. xo

  28. I do that too, but I don’t feel bad about going out with them to things, even grocery shopping. I only feel bad when I’m home sitting in front of the computer instead of playing with them.

  29. You are such a thought-provoking blogger, thank you.

    I read Katrina Kenison’s book The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and loved it. And yet maybe it’s easier to look back on your children’s childhood and wish you had done more puzzles on the floor and less library storytime. But, as a stay at home Mama, I think that socialization is vital – for Mama! Your life doesn’t sound over-scheduled at all.

    As my kids get older (3 and 5) we all do better with long stretches of unscheduled home time. I’ve noticed lately that if I stay out of their way and let them get bored enough, they will discover something creative to do, something that came from their own creativity, that blossomed out of their boredom.

    I do love what she says about “feeding their souls.”
    Blessings to you on your parenting journey Kristen. None of us know what we’re doing.

    • Thank you, Rachel. This discussion has helped me remember that these years at home with tiny ones are lonely and that there’s no need for me to sequester us to the point where I lose my mind. I guess, in the long run, I want to continue to be cognizant of the choices I make for myself and for them, to protect the space of their childhood as much as possible.

  30. I think that one of the challenges in life is to find the things that fill our soul. They change over time. At 41 I realized that I had spent years trying to force myself to like work that I hated. Why? Because the money was good and it made it possible to provide certain things for my family and I thought that as a father it was what I needed to do.

    I can’t do it any longer. I am done with that, through, finished. It is over. In part because I know too many people who have died, friends and classmates.

    Yet I struggled to start making changes because I didn’t want to be selfish. But when I didn’t feed that part of me I became angry and resentful- my kids need to see the happy go lucky goofball that I am supposed to be.

    So to reiterate what others have said, balance is important. It is hard sometimes to find that place and to identify the tools that help make it possible to maintain it. But it is necessary and something that will help make us better parents.

  31. Oh, Kristen, I hear you so well. I realized this a few months ago and finally started cutting back on activities. Now I enjoy our quiet time too much to do anything else. Hmm….perhaps I need to learn some balance. ; )

  32. Yes, I used to do the same thing. I filled our schedule with so many activities that we were at home less than we were away. It ended up being so exhausting and overwhelming that I finally stated cutting out activities. Now I focus only on the actives that bring us joy and surround us with people that we care about. My life is fuller and emptier at the same time. And I love it.

  33. Kristen, I think working out a manageable schedule for the household that includes storytime and playgroups for the boys is not over-programming by any means, the problem is that it sounds like you’re longing for a connection in that context and not just based upon yourself as a “mommy,” right? So to me the question is, “how does one find a friend?” All I know to answer that is that the closer I get to doing the things I love, learning the things I love to learn about, brings me closer to people who match me.

    • Such an astute comment, as always, Linda. I really appreciate what you have to say about finding the things that I love to do as part of my non-mom identity. (Maybe I’ll just bankrupt my family by taking every class Gotham has to offer…) 🙂

  34. I can’t tell you how much I relate to this. My kids are little, too (4 and 18 mo.), and there are a lot of days when I feel desperate to plan something. Being on the go is often a lot easier than staying home. And then I feel guilty. SO guilty.

    The times we do stay home and play are so precious, so fun. I think it’s great for kids to get out, see other people, be exposed to new activities – not a thing wrong with that. But yes, they need what my 4yo calls “home days” to just BE.

    I always say I don’t want to wish away my kids’ babyhoods, childhoods – and then I find myself feeling so overwhelmed by just the day-to-day that I can’t wait to get out of the house. What a conflict. Sorry – this is the most rambling comment! I might have to sit down and write about this, too – you definitely stirred something for me.

  35. Can I tell you that I learned this blow up in my face style when my oldest was only 3.

    He burst into tears in the kitchen and said, “why do we always have to be going?”

    I sat down on the kitchen floor with him, held him, and said, “we’ll stop, we’ll stop.”

  36. We feel that way as well, and are dreading the short daylight hours of the winter where playing outside will be difficulty.

    Hang in there Kristen, you and your family are in my prayers.

  37. I just want to tell you that this was really moving. It takes a lot to put our vulnerabilities out there like this, and I really admire you for doing so. Honesty like this helps a lot of mothers out there.

  38. I felt like this a lot, especially when my kids were as young as yours. It is hard to sit and play with them for any length of time without being distracted and trying to do two things at once and I inevitably would get up after a few minutes and do something else. Or take them somewhere else. And just like you described, I always felt guilty, like I should just enjoy the “being” more. Constantly wrote in my journal about it. Like you said it is isolating being at home, and they didn’t seem to mind, but somehow I always felt like I was failing them somehow.

  39. Hi Kristen,
    Thanks as always for your insights. I didn’t click through on the links, but the excerpts from this post (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/11/step-away-from-your-children.html) seemed germane to this discussion. As you point out, things become more complicated as children grow older…

  40. “Because I want so desperately to be around other people that I’d rather push my my baby around Kroger than sit on the floor and do puzzles with him.”

    I honestly think this is just so normal and not wrong at all–it’s more a symptom of what’s wrong with our modern culture that everyone is so busy “doing” that you have to GO somewhere or DO something to spend time with another adult. What if instead the rhythms of our days naturally included other adults sharing our work and sharing our time so that we didn’t have to feel so isolated at home?

    Adult conversation and company matter, and to some of us they matter more than to others. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is all the hoops we have to jump through to get it.

    • “What if instead the rhythms of our days naturally included other adults sharing our work and sharing our time so that we didn’t have to feel so isolated at home?”

      Oh, if only that were true, Meagan. I suppose in a way wandering the aisles of the grocery store, chatting up other parents and their kids, or hanging out with other moms at a playgroup is the 21st century equivalent of the so-called village that (perhaps?) used to exist.

  41. Pingback: Out of Control | Motherese

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