This update describes being a stay-at-home parent for a few days and sitting in uncertainty.
Last week, my wife and oldest went to a leadership retreat for a home education conference we have participated in for the past few years. When we attended a few months ago, I taught a couple classes on sketchnotes, which I wrote about in June. I took off half the week to stay home with our six other kids while they were gone.
Being a stay-at-home parent is hard. Really hard.
I knew this was the case, and I have taken care of everyone before. But I don’t think I have ever managed everything for this long. I have always tried to be understanding and empathetic of how tired my wife is and how much she does in staying home with our kids, but it is a very different experience trying to pull it off myself.
At the end of the first day, I was completely wiped out. There was almost no break as I drove kids around, fed them, got them ready for various activities, and generally took care of them. We aren’t overscheduled with activities, or so I thought before managing them all. But the needs of six kids quickly get overwhelming.
One of the most frustrating parts of the time off was not getting to take the time off. The morning that my wife and daughter were leaving, I was looking forward to spending the last couple hours with them and helping them get out. But a mini-emergency came up at work, and I had to spend the whole morning ignoring the family and trying to sort things out. I missed their departure, and just left the four youngest kids sitting outside my door for a couple hours. Hopefully they entertained themselves sufficiently. At the least, no one was injured when I finally wrapped up.
Changing expectations is always difficult, particularly with OCD. I can easily get set in plans and anticipate how they will go. When reality is inevitably different, there is a spike of distress. Learning to sit with that is one of my great challenges.
Handling the house and the children while my wife and oldest were gone was not purely difficult. It was also incredibly rewarding. I felt a sense a deep sense of satisfaction at making it through to Saturday afternoon when they returned. Everyone survived, the house was fine, and no catastrophes occurred.
One major win was the laundry. It was mind-blowing to me how much laundry nine people generate. It seemed that I was starting or changing a load every time I turned around. The middles and I have made putting laundry away a bit of a game. We lay out their marked boxes, and they throw each item to me and I toss it in the right box. We try to see how quickly we can do it, and the 9yo is quicker than the 7yo. The real win is that they enjoy doing it with Dad.
There was definitely more that I wanted to do with the kids. I wanted to spend more unstructured time doing whatever they felt like. But almost every moment they were occupied, I jumped into some chore just to try to stay afloat. Even though I was exhausted, I felt good about what we were able to do.
So many of these lessons apply to my professional job as well. There will always be more than can be done. My therapist recommended a couple months ago that I try working without a task list and instead, schedule anything that must get done on my calendar. This approach has brought distress as I worry about dropping something and letting someone down. But it has also brought a degree of peace and calm. I try to consider the most important thing I need to get done, and focus on that. The challenge is not allowing the urgent to overcome the important.
Just as I found in caring for the kids and the house, deep satisfaction doesn’t come from checking everything off the list. It is often found in building and maintaining meaningful relationships.
Change is hard.
At work, I am in a period of transition. There is so much uncertainty about how things will go, and what the future will look like. As I described the situation to my therapist, she commented that I am living in a near-constant exposure. I don’t need to spend a lot of time doing exposures right now, because that is my life.
Overall, I have been happy with my handling of things. There is so much about the situation that I cannot control or even know. But I have trained extensively in uncertainty. At this point, that is something of a speciality for me.
Uncertainty will always be difficult, and at times will be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be scary. As my therapist reminded me, when life starts to feel like it’s crushing me, just focus on the present moment. Right now, I’m sitting in a comfortable chair outside on a beautiful fall day typing on my iPad. That’s all. And I can handle that.
I have an even greater respect for people who choose to stay home and raise their family. There is so much challenge and reward to be found. And this is true for all of us, whatever our situation. Life will continue to present us with uncertainty and difficulty. We can choose to find satisfaction in our willingness to show up and do what we can. Just remember kindness. You deserve it.