Parenting 101: No one ever tells you before you have kids that one of the biggest challenges you may face as a parent is ensuring that you don't lose yourself along the way. I've struggled with this for five years. How can I fulfill the different -- and always multiplying -- roles I need to play as a parent and daughter without losing the core that makes me me? It has taken several years and a few mistakes, but I've found answers. I'm not cut out to be all one thing or another. My monthly routine has to include activities that anchor me solidly in the adult world, despite spending almost all day every day with my preschool-aged kids. That means my part-time consulting work and my volunteer work in city government.It also means managing the care of my ailing Dad as a part-time job. Setting new challenges to accomplish small goals (like running a 10K) is part of the mix. And I need time for bonding with other women (like my book club and nights out with my oldest college or high school friends).
Reading Michael Miller's memoir and self-help book What Happened to the Girl I Married? reminded me of the stark differences between a stay-at-home-parent and a full-time working parent. When Miller was working, his identity had three segments: Sales Executive, Dad and Husband. But that all changed when he decided to stay home for a year and try to do the job his wife had done for more than a decade. That's when he realized that while he was used to having three neat segments to his identity that rarely overlapped, the stay-at-home parent faces a more daunting situation. Her segments become fragmented between all the roles she has to play (e.g. Administrative Assistant, Taxi Driver, CEO of the House, Therapist, Social Planner, Chef, etc.) As a SAHD, Miller could plan his day and anticipate that he might need to play seven roles such as Butler, Cook, Tutor and Taxi Driver in the morning followed by Laundry Man, Housekeeper and Husband in the evening. But the unpredictability of life with kids forced him to abandon nearly every task before it was complete and add new ones such as Nurse (sick kid), Facilities Manager (leaking toilet), and Counselor (child is bullied at school) at the spur of the moment and in response to everyone else's needs. He quickly lost his sense of self and felt fragmented or torn apart rather than segmented into tidy slices.
Miller gained insight and empathy from walking a mile in his wife's shoes. That's something I try not to lose sight of in my own marriage. I've found the outlets that help me not to feel totally overwhelmed by my caregiving roles (most of the time). But my husband -- and all the full-time working parents I am close to -- has a different struggle. For the conscientious working parent like my hubby, the pattern in a typical day is work, then Dad (until bedtime), a little bit of husband-time and then more work at night. At times I worry that he will lose his sense of self since there's so little time in that busy schedule for a social life, sports, volunteer work or hobbies. He carves out some time for himself (a weekly tennis class, bike-riding , the occasional baseball or hockey game), but I try to check in with him to make sure he's not disappearing in some way. I know how easy that is to do and that it takes hard work, planning and commitment to avoid it. Fortunately, my part-time work has always been something of a lifeline that prevents me from drowning in the overwhelming flood of my children's all-consuming needs. A working friend with three young children told me that she thinks the first thing to go for working Moms is attention to self. They work. Then they parent. There's not much time for adult activities. That's a struggle that SAHMs and working Moms can all relate to. We may each tackle it differently but it's a problem we can't just ignore. If we do, we risk losing ourselves. And once that is lost, what do we have left?,