One thing I have struggled with over the years is remembering that parenting is partly a job, and partly just being with your kids. Actually, the “struggle” applies to only half of the equation: As you might have figured out by now, the “job” part of parenting comes pretty naturally to me. Dinner on the table every night? Doctor’s appointment? Driving? I’m on it. Even more subtle forms of the job: “What was your biggest feeling today?” “Let’s to to the bakery so you can pick out the cake you want for your birthday party.” I’m so there.
It was only after the first few years of “doing the job” that I realized, “Wait a minute, there’s another piece here that I’m missing.” And even that happened only after I had dozens, hundreds, thousands of experiences around parents who could just “be” with their kids—laughing, goofing off, being together doing a whole lot of nothing. It took a lot before the light bulb finally went off.
Of course, lighting the light bulb, and acting on the light bulb, are two different things. Even something as simple as dinner. In one of our beautiful realities, for most of our years together the boys and I sat down to dinner as a family almost every night of the week—no small accomplishment for a threesome that included two active teens. But pretty much from the time I picked up my fork, my head—and mout—went straight to: “What did you get done today? What do you still need to do? Any homework? Anything you need my help with? Whose dish night is it?” The job-me kicked in—or should I say, stayed kicked in—without my even thinking about it.
I think our movie nights were a good “just being” tradition while they lasted—even though, to be quite frank, the job-me decided that movie nights were “important” as a way to create a family ritual. Even when I’m not in job mode, it’s because of job mode. (I’ll talk about our family movie nights—one of our loveliest and longest-lasting traditions—in more detail later.)
I do think—a little bit—as we got closer to being a one-kid-under-the-roof family, looking ahead to an empty nest—that something clicked in my brain that let me shift into just-be mode at least a little more often. It was often as simple as goofing with the kids for a few minutes in the morning before they headed out to school (for some reason, this generally involved putting them in a headlock). It was—sometimes—letting dinner conversation, or lack thereof, flow naturally from whatever the kids brought up, instead of the laundry list of “topics we need to cover.” When I was really on my game about not being so on my game, it was “What do you guys want to do for dinner tonight?” and then heading out for a meal that most likely involved french fries—spontaneously, even!
I am guessing that any parents who fall more on the “just be” side of the spectrum are reading this going, “Wow, what a nut.” Point taken. In a meager defense, I do think that we job-centered parents do get a lot done, and we probably provide a lot of benefit to kids who need a lot of structure. I’ve seen plenty of non-jobber parents whose kids run pretty wild pretty much all of the time, and I can’t say I’ve ever thought, “Gee, I wish my kids were more like that.”
I’ve also seen parenting couples where one is the “job” parent and the other is the “just be” (translation: “fun”) parent. Based on a small sample size, I have a pretty good idea how well that turns out: not very.
So as with most things, the single parent has to find ways to balance good cop/bad cop, enforcer/nurturer, and all the other dialectic roles involved in parenting. This in turn means learning one’s natural predispositions and working to incorporate the opposing side. All while being yourself. Piece of cake.
Next: Love vs. Like