As a working mother, my days on the job are often accompanied by a special kind of guilt stemming from external factors causing me to feel like I'm prioritizing my paychecks above my children, or like I'm choosing my career over my family. And while most working mothers would agree that the concept of choosing our employment before our family is completely delusional, it's still tender topic.
I wish I could say that it's easy to not have as much time with my kids as I would ideally like to have, but having to fill that time with something that feels irreplaceable and essential both in terms of our family finances and my identity. But, frankly, that would be a fat lie — it's never "easy." There are days when the guilt of my absence consumes me and, admittedly, I yearn for the minute that I can clock out and return to the sweet hugs and manic meltdowns of my children. I count down the seconds until I can read the same book to them seven times before they'll finally settle in for bed, and I long for those sloppy goodnight kisses that follow.
In any mother's day, there simply aren't always enough hours to be everything to everyone all the time. When the weekends are that gleaming pot of gold at the end of a very long, very hectic week, it's hard not to treat them as such. When you only have two days to cram in a week's worth of fun, the pressure to perfect your parenting within 48 hours is enough to cause hyperventilation into brown paper bags.
Here's the problem with trying to treat every weekend like a holiday: Unless you're a Mary Poppins/Jackie Chan hybrid, it's completely unrealistic, and you'd sooner go insane than effectively master a constant state of fun. Museums are educational, parks are recreational, and playgrounds promote exploration, but the truth is that none of these so called "fun zones" can provide your kids with what they truly want, what they truly need: time spent with their mom.
This sentiment goes for all moms, both working and at home (because being a stay-at-home mom is equally, if not even more mentally taxing than being a working mom). I doubt that between the nine-to-fives, the mountains of laundry, or the any of the chaos of a mother's day-to-day life that any of us could possibly conclude that we get enough unbridled, uninhibited fun with our kids. That's because being a parent is a job, and being a mom is exponentially more trying than any book ever described. Moments of actual spontaneity too often slip our unsuspecting grips; they're sometimes so few and far between that we feel the overwhelming need to overcompensate for our apathetic efforts put towards adventure and fun.
Whether it's an entire weekend or only a few moments of unopposed attention, our kids simply crave our presence. They don't need circus animals or puppet shows; They can do without the exotic birds at the zoo, and they're more than OK with not sitting still for two hours at the movies. Blanket forts and tea parties will more than suffice, and Dr. Seuss will almost always meet their heart's content.
I'm not encouraging a couch potato lifestyle. This isn't about necessarily being lazy with your kids (also, yes, do that too); It's about simply just increasing the time spent being an active participant in the lives of our kids. Whether that's in our pajamas in the living room floor, or in Mickey Mouse ears treking through Disney World, we just need to be present, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
They won't remember all 72 trips to the zoo but they will remember the time spent with you there. It's unlikely that they'll ever suffer the effects of a lack of themed parades or picnics, but they will suffer the effects of our emotional absence. I think it's normal to make ambitious plans throughout the week, to fantasize about the potential that a free weekend with our kids poses but that kind of pressure negatively impacts the wellbeing of parents more than it positively influences our kids' opinions of us. Besides, the truth is, it's pretty unnecessary to try to impress a toddler. Everything impresses them. Literally everything. The fact that we can tie our shoes and reach the cookie jar is, like, the beyond amazing to them. They really don't need our ill-planned shenanigans to be satisfied.
None of this is to say that I'm not at least as in need of hearing this advice as anyone. I, too, overemphasize the spirit of the weekend. I place too much pressure on myself (on my entire family, actually) to make memorable use of our spare time together. I disappoint myself when I fall short of my own realistic expectations of pleasing my kids.
I wish my weekends were straight out of magazine ads where everyone is enthusiastically embracing one another while roasting marshmellows over a warm fire, all wearing plaid and telling ghost stories, enjoying every second shared with their perfect (definitely not boring), adventurous families. But that's not real life.
Real life is sweatpants and cereal-covered toddlers giggling because they just realized that Cheerios fit inside their nose, and you're laughing too because that's actually really funny (but no, seriously, take that out of there). Real life is building blanket forts and making dragon noises because your kid wants to protect his imaginary castle. Real life is running through $7 sprinklers in your front yard while your neighbors judge you for wearing arm floaties and goggles. Real life is so much more than coordinated outfits in theme parks; it's so much more than forced photos or expensive vacations.
Life with kids is about the moments, no matter how seemingly insignificant or singular they may seem at the time. Every moment spent being a part of their lives is of incomprehensible importance. All of them — the good, the bad, the snotty, awkward, awful, and amazing. Whether it's on the playground while awkwardly swinging on the monkey bars, or in the kitchen floor drumming on pots and pans, just the fact that you are present, that you want to be there is enough. It's more than enough.
A playground, after all, is whatever you make of it.
Images: Jessica Blankenship; Giphy (4)