Confession: Sometimes I think I was a better nanny than I am a mama.
I’ve been feeling spread thin lately…I think I’ve made too many commitments and filled my calendar too full, and when the margins around my life shrink to nothing I get anxious and stressed. I feel like I’m dabbling in everything and doing nothing well, while projects that I really care about and think about constantly sit untouched. My stress level can be assigned a numerical value according to the number of m&ms consumed per day, and let me tell you, it’s not pretty.
Meanwhile, the kids are in winter funk zone, where they’ve shed their normal sweet personalities in favor of crazy. Just crazy. You should see a mealtime around here lately. It’s like eating with monkeys.
When I’m feeling stressed and overcommitted and my children are feeling like monkeys, I tend to struggle being a good mama. I tend to get impatient instead of understanding, to want to distract them instead of engage them, to count the hours until bedtime instead of living in the present moment.
When I was a nanny in my post-college years in Chicago, it was my job. I was paid well to watch one child for 10 hours per day, which legitimized spending my days on the carpet rolling balls back and forth, spending hours at the park, walking to the lakefront and looking at the boats. I felt justified in having leisurely meals with my little charge and reading as many books as he wanted. I didn’t feel like I had to have anything to show for my time, other than a happy, fed, rested boy to greet his mom at the end of the day.
Even though he was my job, I wasn’t ultimately responsible for that boy’s life. I was a little detached, being careful not to try to take the place of his mom and making sure to always reinforce her role in his life. I didn’t have to make decisions about his routines; I just had to carry them out. I didn’t worry about how my actions would shape his life into adulthood; I knew that I was a blip on the radar of his long life and I just needed to love him and care for him that day.
I also got to leave at the end of the day. I drove or rode my bike home, relishing the aloneness and enjoying my freedom again. I spent my evenings with Kasey however we wanted and enjoyed my weekends. If the little boy was having a hard day or I was especially tired, I knew that I would be off duty in a matter of hours and that gave me the energy to rally for the remainder of the day.
What if I viewed mothering more like nannying?
What if I gave myself permission every now and then to not have anything to show for my day, other than happy, fed, rested children? Not even a clean bathroom, or laundry finished, or a phone call made, or an errand run? What if I legitimized playing with my kids in my own head, even put it on my to-do list? What if I allowed myself to recognize my limits and say “no” when I’m at capacity for outside commitments?
And what if I realized that I am not ultimately responsible for my kids’ lives? Even now at ages 4 and 2, they are their own people and their decisions are their own. This will only become more true as they grow. I can keep a healthy detachment, being sure that I’m not trying to take the place of God in their lives. While I do have to think about how my actions will shape their lives into adulthood, I don’t have to assume responsibility for their choices and see them as reflections of me and my values. I just need to love them and care for them today.
Now, as for the leaving at the end of the day part, well that’s just not possible. Parenting is a 24 hour job and there is no time off the clock. And for an introvert like me who craves solitude and silence, this can be difficult. Yes, I know, get up an hour before your kids do and have some quiet time to yourself. Trouble is, my kids have built-in mama’s-awake-alarms and my wake time is their wake time. I need some serious grace to thrive in the midst of the neverendingness of parenting. It’s my opportunity for growth, I suppose. But parenting veterans tell me that things will not always be this intense…and someday kids will even leave your house, I hear.
While there are lessons to be learned from my nannying days, I wouldn’t trade mothering for anything, monkey kids and all. I may have been a better nanny than a mama, but I’d rather be a good mama than an excellent nanny.