The internet and Malcolm Gladwell will tell you that if you practice something for 10,000 hours, you can become a master. Well I’ve now been parenting for 10 years, that’s 87,600 hours (or 87, 548 if you subtract the hours I was asleep), which means that I am pretty much the Yoda of parenting. So here are 10 things I have learnt over 10 years of parenting.
1. Spinning plates
I can remember a time in my 20’s when I knew that if I just dedicated a Sunday to ‘catching up’ then I could get back on top of pretty much anything. Finances? Check. Clean the house? Check. Annoying little jobs around the house? Check.
But the arrival of Josh lead to a 2 year period where life became a constant plate spinning act.
Finally feel that I’m getting on top of things around the house? But what about fitness? Quick do more fitness! Oh no…what about that Tax Return that’s due? Quick do that. Aaaghh!! What about spending time with the Hull-Browns…Oh God and the Riordan’s? Oh crap, I’ve got to devote some of my time to keeping the marriage together, and the dogs could really do with some attention…but I also need to get on top of things around the house!!!
By the time Holly arrived I started looking on in horror as some of the plates I was spinning crashed to the ground…and by the time Xavier arrived I was pretty much walking around with the sound of crashing crockery rebounding around my head. Did the world end? No. Did my marriage dissolve? No. Did the kids become little monsters? N…actually…look, let’s just say it could have been worse. But the simple fact of the matter is that spinning plates is foolish and overly ambitious. Just have as many plates as there are people in your family, put good food on them, make sure everyone uses them at the same time, clean them when they’re finished with and everything else will sort itself out from there.
2. Misery likes company
You need to make friends with people who are going through the same thing as you. Friends without kids will be nothing but a well meaning source of jealousy. Parents of kids who are older or younger than yours are also of little use. Those with kids older than yours have already repressed the horror that you’re going through, and besides they’re a little distracted by ‘Oliver! Get down from there! No don’t jump down!!! Oh God. I told you not to…yes, yes I do think it’s broken.’ And people with younger children have absolutely no interest in entertaining the possibility that things could actually get worse (or as I like to call it ‘bad, but in a different way’).
What you need is people who can look at you through bleary eyes and say ‘Yeah…I actually went in and woke her up at 2am so that I had an excuse to watch the Tour de France’. People who aren’t appalled when you mention your kid has Hand, Foot and Mouth, people who will buy birthday presents that aren’t Axle-F playing toy cats, and people who will occasionally utter to your child the most beautiful sentence known to parents ‘Yeah, of course it’s OK if you come over for a sleepover!’
There is no end of things you can spend your money on once you have kids…and roughly 6% of these are things that you actually want. Mortgages, rent, cars, basketball, piano, choir, food, clothes, food again, I have been genuinely appalled at the number of times I’ve had to slink into a bank branch to withdraw money in the days leading up to a payday, simply because I had less than $20 in my account and so couldn’t take money out of the ATM.
If I had my way, the whole family would be living in a tent somewhere subsisting on foraged food and care packages from concerned relatives, while money accumulated in our bank account. ‘Fun costs money!’ I would yell at members of the family as they suggested expenditure of frivolous items such as holidays, or parties, or running water. To say the least, I am a fiscal conservative.
Katie on the other hand doesn’t share my fear of spending money. Indeed, if she had her way, we would probably be living in the same tent foraging for food, but we wouldn’t have a large bank balance and instead would have an amazing array of life experiences to show for it.
Fortunately we have managed to find a middle-ground that sees me spending a lot of time feeling anxious and Katie spending a lot of time feeling frustrated…but our kids have a renovated roof over their head, they rarely have to forage for food, and the care packages come in the form of dinners at our parents house. Which is really the sweet spot you should be aiming for with your parenting.
4. They need you…but you need you too
I’ve seen a few parents who have continued on with their lives after kids exactly as they were before they had kids, and I’ve seen parents whose lives were gradually subsumed into the lives of their kids. As with most of these things, somewhere in between is where you need to be. You need to be there for your partner and kids…but you also need to maintain enough of the person you want to be so that when you look in the mirror you don’t wonder ‘Who is that chubby, dull, old guy?’
Having said that, I have swung to pretty much both ends of this pendulum. On the one hand I’ve spent an entire year training for an Ironman, and on the other hand I’ve spent so much time as the ‘self-nominated child minder at social events’ that I have pretty much become a social ghost in that I’m constantly leaving conversations before they can develop into anything interesting as I’m scampering off to move someone away from a ladder, or playing with a child until they have ‘warmed up’ enough to go and play with the other kids…or not even attending grown-up social events because I’m at home looking after the kids. The net result has been and increasingly reclusive lifestyle that only leads to jealousy about other people’s non-reclusive lifestyles.
So this is ultimately a very long way of saying, if I’m talking to you at a party and I’m really struggling to make small-talk…please bear with me…I’m a bit rusty.
With all three of our kids we have spent the first two years of their life not sleeping through the night. So I clearly have no advice to pass on here, other than that sleep deprivation is a freaking killer. It kills motivation, patience, creativity, passion and tolerance…which are pretty much the essential ingredients for a successful family life, marriage and career. There will be plenty of times when you put a strain on these things…but if you feel you are losing them, get help. Try sleep school, ask your friends what they’re doing, see if you can palm the kids off to a relative or friend for the night so that you can at least get one night of uninterrupted sleep. But don’t just try to ride it out. Sleep deprivation is like an insidious gas that distorts your perception and clouds your judgement, the only cure is a few nights of unbroken sleep…or failing that coffee…lots of coffee.
Have you ever wondered what the personification of all of your insecurities and weaknesses would look like? Well let me assure you it looks a lot like your child as you watch them loitering around the outskirts of a social occasion, or you see them being dragged along the beach by a dog because they have absolutely no body weight…but are determined not to let go, or of course in that precious moment when at 3 years old they drop something and say ‘Oh, for Christ’s SAKE!’
7. They’ve got to take risks
This is one is really hard. Put simply, if you never let your kids take any risks you will probably have an unblemished report card when it comes to visits to the Emergency Department. But I also think you will have a child who will compensate wildly for this lack of risk taking in later life, or a child who is too scared to take the risks that we need to take as human beings to progress in life. With that said, I still feel a pang of fear each time one of the kids goes for a ride around the block, or heads up to the shop to get some milk, or stands on something very high and asks me to film a slow-mo video of him jumping off. But that’s nothing compared to how proud of themselves they are when they do it.
8. Parental guilt
One of the most brutal parts of raising kids, is realising what a turd you were when you were a kid. How hard you made life for your parents, how ungrateful you were for everything that they did for you, how ignorant you were of the myriad battles they were fighting. You want to apologise to them, you want to say ‘Is there anything I can do to make up for it?’, you want to do anything you can to assuage the guilt and feeling of indebtedness.
Instead, you say ‘Can you PLEASE look after the kids this Saturday night?’…and dig that hole a little deeper.
9. Some things you grew up with were actually really good
Growing up in Melbourne, and in a family that liked sport. I was pretty indoctrinated into the worlds of Cricket and AFL Football. But in my late twenties, I found that I was actually getting way too involved in the actions of 18 men on a footy field who I had never met and slowly started to divorce myself from footy. I also stopped hanging out with people who enjoyed watching cricket (or perhaps more accurately started living with someone who didn’t enjoy watching cricket) and I slowly lowered my cricket status to ‘aware of enough to make conversation if necessary’.
By the time Josh was born, I hadn’t watched a game of footy or cricket for years and so he has grown up without doing AusKick, or going to a footy match, or watching an ODI or 20/20 cricket match.
While we were down at Wilson’s Prom in January some kids came over and asked if he’d like to play cricket with them, he tentatively said ‘Yes’, but then admitted ‘But I don’t really know the rules’. In an instant I realised that at his age I was out pretty much every night in the backyard bowling at an imaginary batsman, or bouncing a ball off our back wall and catching the rebound, and that Saturday nights always held the potential of watching a Day/Night match at the MCG with my Dad.
I’d deprived my kids of this, just because I didn’t like the way it turned out for me…not because it was a bad idea. What’s more, in a city that lives and breathes sport, I’d deprived them of key information that will most likely provide the backbone of thousands of future conversations.
10. Don’t listen to people on the internet
For the love of God, you’re an adult…and a parent. Why are you reading this? You don’t need advice from someone on the internet about your own children. You know full well they’ve probably just plonked the kids in front of a screen so that they can find the time to write a blog about how to be a good parent. You also know that the photos that people post on Facebook showing the happy family engaged in an educational/cultural/physical activity was preceded by 5 minutes of screams and threats. You know that the parent humble bragging about their child’s achievement at school/sport/lion taming is glossing over the part where their child also nearly set fire to the cat.
So don’t surround yourself with someone else’s curated version of parenthood. Surround yourself with real life parents living with real life kids and share the good, the bad and the ugly. Because that’s what parenting should be about; sharing the dazzling highs and commiserating on the soul-crushing lows. But most of all it’s about talking honestly about what your kids are doing and what they are going through…and then walking away and thinking ‘well at least my kids aren’t doing that!’