So, yes, I am a mother to four children. Considering I have no family nearby, that is quite a handful. I know it is, because people tell me what a handful it must be all the time. And indeed they are right. But I often get frustrated with the modern expectations and limitations on parenting that make this the case.
Here's the thing - when I was a kid, the role of my mother was to make sure she provided three meals a day, to make sure I went to school, and to make sure she knew where I was. That was about it - anything else was optional. When I was Andrew's age, I had free reign of our street and the park a block away from our house. When I was 9, I used to bike 6 blocks (past a major intersection) with my friend and spend every afternoon at the pool. The adult supervision was the lifeguard. I used to walk 5 blocks to school by myself, often arriving late because I was daydreaming on the way to school. The adult supervision was called the crossing guard. My friend Rita and I used to bike around our neighbourhood, the back lane, the parks, and our back yards. The adult supervision was the neighbors. Now, this would be called Free Range Parenting. I got lots of it.
Now, our role as parents is to ensure our children are receiving three highly nutritional meals containing fresh, organic local food, provide them with a schedule of stimulating and educational activities, drive them to and from said activities, keep them within arms reach at all times, and monitor their independent play in case there is a situation that needs adult intervention. We need to ensure they are getting adequate time in nature ( to avoid nature deficiency), adequate time being read to and doing art (to prevent motor skill or reading delays), adequate time playing with age appropriate peers (to avoid lagging in social skills and emotional intelligence), and adequate time in sports and arts activities (to avoid having to learn anything new after they are 10). We must talk about all their feelings and play all their games and give them choices for everything. We must always be positive without praising, set limits without punishing, think of logical consequences for illogical kid behavior and get them to be quiet without yelling over the din.
When you have one child, no matter how difficult and precocious that child is, you can just about manage all that. With two, I have discovered, it might be possible. With four? No. Nope, can't do it, sorry. I can not play Lego and have a tea party and change a diaper simultaneously. I can't think of a logical consequence for jabbing your brother with a pencil while holding a screaming, hungry baby, keeping said brother (who is now spitting mad) away from the pencil jabber and reading Goodnight Gorilla. Trust me, I've tried. I can't give my kids three hours of play at the park when I have a small baby who can't breathe in the heat and a sink full of dishes and a centimeter of sand on every surface of the house. And there are certainly no handy neighbors or lifeguards or crossing guards to keep watch while they play unsupervised up and down the (busy) street.
So I have been thinking a lot about what parenting is all about for me. What can I reasonably expect of myself? What will provide the important stuff to my children without killing me in the process? What is a manageable job description at this point? And here is what I have come up with.
Right now it is my job to make sure everyone is fed and reasonably clean. I need to make sure they are safe and that they get some time outdoors and some exercise every day. I need to provide them with an environment that is clean and organized enough for them to feel calm, and that contains lots of opportunities to play and create. I need to spend a few moments each day listening to and talking with each child individually. I need to give them some structure to their day, as well as some simple rules and consequences so that they know what to expect, they know what I expect of them, and they know what will happen when those expectations are not met. I need to teach them how to take care of themselves and clean up after themselves and support one another. And they need me to be calm and stable and not lose my temper. They need me to have grace with them, and ask for forgiveness when I've been wrong.
And that's it. I've decided to have confidence that they will work out what to play and how the rules go and who is in charge when. They will work out what to make and what to build and how the story goes. And eventually, they will tell me what activities they want to be involved in, and we will follow their interests when that happens. And along the way I will guide them when they need help. I will suggest how they could decide who gets which Playmobil weapons, or how they could take turns being in charge of the story, or how they could ask for something in a way that doesn't cause someone to feel put out. I will give them strategies for dealing with that bully at school, or making friends with the kid they find interesting, or organizing themselves better for school. And they will work out the details after that. If they need my help, I will be here for them. And if they don't, I will let them be.
Right now, I think that is how this parenting thing is going to work. I am throwing out all the theorists and how to books and 5 steps to this or that. I am embracing the work I need to do as a parent, and allowing my children to do the work they need to do as growing, imperfect, illogical, incredible individuals and as part of this rich, chaotic community we call home.