Pressing On: How to Cope with the Difficulties of Stay-At-Home Parenting

408268-1_1920x1080_534843971868It is 8 AM and I am feeding my children a breakfast of honey graham bunnies, which they fetched for themselves, while I sit on our couch sipping coffee and crying uncontrollably.  Sometimes the tears come in droplets, sometimes in torrents, but regardless of the speed they arrive I just can’t get them to stop.  Welcome to the beginning of a very hard day in the life of a stay-at-home-mom. Welcome to my yesterday.

I am choosing to stay home with my children while they are little.  No disrespect toward those who choose to work. I suppose this post could be read in such a way to make those who chose differently feel better about their own choice.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that even though I chose this for myself and my family, and even though I have no intention to go out and find a full-time job, I still find some days to be incredibly difficult to handle.  To those stay-at-home parents out there who feel the same way, this is for you.

I love my kids.  It’s absurd that I feel the need to reiterate that statement over and over.  But when you are struggling to like your job, and your job is as the primary caretaker for your kids, it is only inevitable to feel a certain level of guilt.  So let’s get this one clear.  Struggling to cope with the hardships of watching little children full-time, 24/7, sometimes on your own with them for 12 hours or more, does not make you a bad parent.  It doesn’t mean you don’t love them enough or that you are somehow the wrong woman to be their mother (or man to be their father).

You aren’t failing them when you are truthful about why parenting as your full-time profession is sometimes profoundly difficult.  In fact, it is only in acknowledging our struggles that we can best serve our little ones and love them even more. So the fact that I am not always excited to get out of bed in the morning to attend to my children’s needs does not mean that I don’t love them.  Nor does the fact that I let myself feel these difficulties, cry in front of them when it gets really hard, and explain to them that “Mommy’s get sad sometimes too” after I calm down.  I love my kids.

I get lonely.  I think this is the crux of so many of the other difficulties faced by stay-at-home parents.  While other people go off to work, see co-workers, and meet friends for lunch, I spend most of my days in our house with my kids.  When I do go out, even if I see others, I spend most of that time focused on my children, their antics and needs, and not the people sitting across the table from me.  Of course, I can try to do more to expand my community and I know that for some moms this isn’t a huge problem.  But not everyone has kids in the same place where you grew up or has an established community near people they love, trust, and who have time to see you during the day.

Building this kind of community takes energy, flexibility, and time, qualities often in short supply when raising little kids.  We have moved around so much in recent years it is disorienting.  And while those choices were the best ones for our family, it does make this loneliness harder to deal with and community more challenging to create.  For it is hard enough to make inroads with a new community when you are single or newly married, but add in the complex needs of little kids and this task can feel next to impossible!

Oh, but what about all those programs for moms? What a wonderful way to connect and make friends! Yes, ok.  I can personally testify that those morning bible studies or MOPS type experiences have been both life-saving and very discouraging in the realm of relationships.  Don’t get me wrong, I think ANYTHING that can help get you and your children out of the house to socialize with others is a great idea if you can make travel arrangements and fit it into your schedule.  I am genuinely grateful for all the people who I have met so far along the way.  Even if I only spoke with you for three minutes a year ago, you are significant in my life and I still thank God for you.  I’m serious.

However, using these venues to find heart friends, to find the kind of people you have more in common with than just child rearing or a free morning, to find people who you can call up to join you on days filled with buckets of tears and honey graham breakfasts, are much harder to come by.  The task of growing acquaintances into friends can be tedious and dissatisfying when you have a pressing need for deep relationships right now.  I know they come for many.  I am trusting they will come one day soon for me.  But it hasn’t happened yet, so I am often very lonely.

Some might say, “Oh, but you have your kids to keep you company!” Yes, yes I do.  And I love my kids.  There we go again.  But my kids don’t speak fluent English.  My kids have the needs, and thoughts, and desires of little children.  As is appropriate.  And while the whole point of staying home is so that I can build deeper relationships with them during these formative years, trying to commune with a 1 year old as my primary social interaction is not emotionally satisfying.  Nor should it be.

At the end of the day they are still my children and I am still the parent.  I shouldn’t look to them to fill my emotional needs.  That would be both wrong and expensive.  After factoring in the cost of therapy once they get older, I’d probably have to go back to work just to pay for our mental healthcare expenses. Plus, thanks to their desire to join me everywhere I go, including the bathroom, I am hardly ever technically alone.  While some parents might be cool with this lack of personal space, I actually find it makes the whole loneliness problem pretty darn difficult to process and manage.  I mean, if I want to have a private emotional breakdown I have to schedule it for nap time.  So yes, I love my kids, but I can spend all day with them and still be lonely.

I get bored.  I know, I know, childhood is an endless adventure! When you see life through their eyes it brings new meaning and interest to your own! Oh look! It’s a leaf and it is FASCINATING!  When watching little kids it is true that we relearn how even the small parts of life can be fun and mysterious and interesting.  We can enjoy simpler things and really appreciate the value of endless silly giggles.  But other times in the day I desire mental challenges or stimulating conversation that relates to a different part of my being.  Blocks and cars and children’s books are awesome, but after a couple of hours I am genuinely ready to focus my brain on something else.

Maybe not all stay-at-home parents have this problem.  But as a highly analytical and philosophically oriented person, I like having intellectual goals and tasks of a nature that aren’t currently a part of my daily parenting schedule.  I like talking to people about abstract concepts like the nature of God’s love, and having practical debates on topics like the best way to address the challenges in the Middle East.  These interests are a vital part of my personality and they didn’t just disappear or get filed away in the inner recesses of my soul as soon as my first child was born.  So while I truly value learning to have awe, and not just irritation, for the tiny ants that occasionally invade our kitchen, I also desire to use and be my whole self throughout each day.  Otherwise, I get bored.

I feel unfulfilled.  Ok, yes, the work of raising children is a tremendously important task for both the lives of our kids and the future of our communities.  It is a gift to have this opportunity to be here for them with consistency and to see each milestone in person.  It is a miracle to have a hand at shaping the life of another in such an intimate and complete way.  But when lacking outlets for my passions, or even time to figure out just what my passions are, I feel almost like a shell of myself.  A hollow person moving from task to task without real connection or heart.  We give to our kids by being our whole unique selves as God created us, and that includes integrating all of our interests and skills into our daily routines.

Some might ask then, “Why don’t you just go get a job?!” Well, for starters, I don’t need a job title to be whole for myself or for them.  Although, let’s face it, somedays I certainly wonder if that would be an easy solution.  Especially for boosting my self-worth in a world that can merge identity with work and that tends to see full-time parenting as the absence of work. I think this misnomer is where we can get tripped up in thinking that there is some fundamental quality about staying at home with kids that is unsatisfying or joyless.  It might not be right for everyone, but for most of us there is plenty of satisfaction and joy in spending this season with our children.  It’s just also incredibly difficult to make space for our own interests and well-being while striving to meet their relentless needs.

Yet we can try to find time for ourselves, and not just at nap times.  Toddlers can play by themselves, they really can, and I think it is healthy for them to gain independence and to see us doing things other than just housework or play.  Of course, I always make space for them and their needs, which means I am interrupted an average of every three minutes.  But I think we can choose to orient parts of our day towards our other goals and interests outside of childrearing.  I am trying, slowly, to write and read more throughout the day.  I periodically put CNN on in the background.  I aspire to join a book club.  These are just some of the ways we can connect with our whole selves. Yet when lacking this personal time to use all of my God-given gifts, or when doubting myself and my purpose, I feel unfulfilled.

I feel overwhelmed.  Sometimes the demands of full-time parenting are really just too much to handle without a good cry.  At least for me anyway.  Toddlers are emotionally volatile little people, and since I have been either postpartum or pregnant for most of this parenting journey, I am emotionally volatile as well.  It really doesn’t take much beyond the daily diapers, spills, mealtime messes, and tantrums to trigger an occasional torrent of tears or frustration from either or both of us.

The tremendous weight of forming another’s life, and the practical situations that we face in this task, can be both perplexing and stretching. Some situations find me looking upwards and saying, “I am not equipped for this,” and yet I still have to make a call, on my lonesome, for how best to take care of my children and help them grow in that moment.  While I usually figure out some response with varying degrees of wisdom and grace, there are at least a few seconds – if not minutes – where I just want to hide or hand over my parenting duties to someone else.

Plus, I hate housework.  There, I said it.  Some of you, I know, love it.  It helps calm you down or feel in control, and that is awesome.  But I hate it and I’m bad at it.  And while I try to take responsibility for a lot household chores as the spouse who is at home, I am not choosing to stay home to be our family’s professional maid.  I am choosing to stay home to help our children develop in a safe, positive, and familiar environment.  Contrary to stereotypes or cultural expectations, these two roles of maid and mother are frequently mutually exclusive.

Our home routinely has piles of dirty everything and it’s not because I am a lazy lout all day.  Seriously, have you ever noticed that trying to accomplish household tasks with the “help” of toddlers can take about 500 times longer than normal? Not to mention that if this was all I did all day long I would probably need a prescription for Xanax.  I count myself blessed to live in the age of google so I can figure out just how to handle applesauce stains on the sofa  or throw-up on the carpet.  And by handle I mean mitigate the damage, not restore unto perfection.  If you ever sit on our couches, I’m sorry.  After my panic attacks subsided, I tried my best.

So yes, on some days I find myself lonely, bored, unfulfilled, and overwhelmed.  And then I cry.  Sometimes I cry a little, sometimes a lot, and sometimes for hours on end because I just can’t keep it in anymore.  But then my husband comes home to hold me and give me a break, I take some deep breaths, and I remember why all this is worth it in the end.  I remember that I am choosing this path and that I can find ways to cope with the hardships day by day.  I consider new ways to walk out my calling and take care of myself, even if that means a part-time job, a nanny share, or a half-time pre-school.

I remember that God knows my struggles and he knows my heart.  I remember that He is always with me and that I can always cast my burdens upon Him.  I remember that He hasn’t forgotten the entirety of who He created me to be.  I remember that for all things there is a season and while some parts of me may lie dormant right now (like the part that exercises and showers on a daily basis), those pieces of me will blossom again, perhaps sooner than I can imagine today.  I remember that He prunes us to help us grow, and I pray that the fullness of my gifts and passions will flourish again in His divine timing and as a part of His divine plan.  I remember that He does not judge us by the cleanliness of our sinks but by the cleanliness of our souls.  And I press on.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrectionfrom the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  ~ Philippians 3:7-14

 

Note: Throughout this piece I use the term “full-time parent(ing)” to refer to the work of those parents who stay home to take care of their kids.  I recognize that ALL parents are full-time parents, regardless of where you are.  But the reality is that those who stay home are there do the work of parenting as their full-time profession.  No insult or superiority intended. I am just attempting to describe the daily tasks of parents who forgo a career in order to stay home with their children in a faithful and accurate way.