This year during Passover I revisited a brilliant book about parenting. Truthfully, it’s the only book on parenting that I’ve read in entirety. “All Joy and No Fun” by Jennifer Senior is such a great book about parenting because it’s not about how to parent children, but about the experience of parenting itself.
My experience of parenting seems to impact my entire life, but certainly my Jewish experiences. The meaning of the holidays have forever changed as I navigate a world as a parent. This Passover I thought about my personal experience of freedom as I was jumping up from the Seder to get more food, more entertainment, attend to a child’s needs and even facilitate bedtime. I thought to myself, even though we are at a Passover Seder, do I have a chance to truly recline?
When can parents feel the presence of being taken from a narrow and tight place to one of expansiveness and possibility? My life has less choice and less possibility than ever. Going to Target or grocery shopping by myself feels like a complete vacation. Compared to my previous life without my children when I could eat, sleep, and exercise according to my own needs and wishes, parenting can feel like a form of bondage.
Let’s be clear right now, that I chose to become a parent and feel so amazingly blessed to have my children in my life. I know very well the pain and suffering of families who do want to have children and are not able to. But all of us, even families who have experienced loss and infertility, need a space to say: this parenting business, at times, looks nothing like a carefree dance with tambourines on the shores of the Red Sea.
I don’t believe that freedom in the context of parenting and the parental experience is an oxymoron. Here are four ways to lead yourself away from a place of internalized taskmasters, to a place of discovery and freedom.
1. Freedom from self-imposed expectations and unrealistic standards:
While the pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good-enough mother” has a place in the theory of parenting, the reality is I don’t know a single mother who feels like she is ever doing enough. And nearly all parents I know, fathers and mothers alike, feel the struggle and pull between their own needs and those of their children. I imagine I would be a better parent if I provided more homemade family dinners, if my home was an organized and clutter-free place where my kids were polite and had mastered impulse control. Spoiler Alert: that’s not my reality. I don’t actually know people who live that reality. So, dump the “shoulds” in the metaphorical Nile River and be gentle with yourself. Recognize that there are limitations to what you can achieve. Then focus on your priorities and values. Live out those values and priorities and be confident that you are likely doing the very best you can. And it is enough.
2. Deliverance from the bitterness of power struggles.
My personal rule about Shabbat is that we don’t have power struggles over food or bedtime. If my kids eat only challah and ice cream as a complete meal on Shabbat, that’s fine. It is my personal sabbath from the cajoling, negotiating, encouraging, and explaining that happens during so many of the meals in our house. Often, when I don’t engage in a power struggle over food, I notice that my kids have helped themselves to most of the healthy options that are available. Some kids are picky eaters and some kids are more prone to engage in power dynamics with their caregivers. And some are both. Do you get into power struggles with your children about clothing, chores, homework, manners, religious observance, screen time?
It seems that a fundamental quality to raising independent and thoughtful kids is that they are going to have opinions and push back on the limits we set. Hooray for watching them practice these skills in real time! Not so fun when it’s about getting your seatbelt on so we can get to our destination on time. Endless pushing back and forth results in these power struggles. So determine what is non-negotiable to you in the health and safety department. Then. Let. Go. Truly. Is it worth the power struggle if they want to wear shorts in 30 degree weather? Pack a few warm articles in their bag in case they discover that they are too cold to participate in their day. Is it worth the power struggle over bedtime that results in anxious and resistant children and burnt out and resentful parents? Imagine even one less power struggle in your life. Use the many resources that are out there about empowering kids, establishing clear and firm expectations, and parenting from a place of love rather than control.
3. Liberation from the burden of “self-care.”
Yes, there are the endless things that parents must do in a limited amount of time. Is self-care on this list? Remember the often utilized comparison to putting your own oxygen mask on first so that you will be fit to care for others (your children)? And I agree that this is an important principle, in theory and practice. However, self-care often feels like just another task in a long list of things I feel like I don’t have time to get to. Freedom might look like a mini getaway, or date night, or sitting down while you eat a meal. But in our household date night is tricky when you have to pay a caregiver for three kids and you are already spending money on childcare when you are both at work. It can be hard to justify another expense so you can check “marital self-care” off the list. So, how can taking care of yourself be integrated into your life, rather than an imposition on your precious resources?
4. Emancipation from the bondage of housework.
The parenting part is relational. The rest of the time and energy is laundry, dishes, cooking, clean up, organizing, managing the many things that come with children—from toys to schoolwork.
Freedom from not doing housework is so miraculous, I am more likely to see the San Francisco Bay split like the Red Sea, than have my house be a place where order and cleanliness are the baseline. You may not be able to feel comfortable in the basic chaos of an active family. Or maybe you might feel more free if you did let go a bit?
What can you let go of? What can you outsource? What can you train your children to do?
In five years, or months or even five weeks will you be able to remember the laundry that was folded or the dishes that were washed? No, and you might not even remember the bedtime story you read or the cuddles you shared, but you will likely remember the feeling that you had when you parented. I don’t often remember the feeling of how it was when I cleaned up the house.
So as you move on from the celebration of Passover, be sure to take the essence of the holiday and meaning of freedom into the rest of the year. Feel free to recline, sip your beverage of choice, and look around at the people who made you a parent and remember that, at least sometimes liberation and freedom are within your reach.