Parenthood: The Job You Can’t Quit

“I stink at being a parent, and I don’t want to do it anymore. All my kids are going to end up in therapy, and I’d just rather go hiking really.”

(via pictures funny16.com)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been here. You’ve had those days when you were just so discouraged that you couldn’t see a way through the tangled morass of hope, fear, joy, worry, doubt, and dread that is parenthood. It’s a colossal task, raising kids, and most of us are woefully unprepared for it.

There’s no magic rule book, no fool-proof training. The only models we had are our own parents. But they raised different kids in a different time when children actually played outside occasionally and didn’t carry smart phones in their pockets. The old tricks don’t always apply. And just when you do manage to become an expert on your particular kid, he/she will change. Kids do that. They grow, they develop, they enter puberty, and then all bets are off.

So here I am trying to make decisions on a daily basis that are going to affect the development and future potential happiness of our children, and I’m guessing. Most of the time they are educated guesses, sure, based on past observations of said child, the experience of other parents, and often, extensive reading.  But when it comes down to it, every decision is a judgment call, an educated guess at best, and one that is very often swayed by how much or little patience I’ve got left for the day. And lately, I’ve got to say, the reservoir is pretty darn low. I’m thinking about rationing, but I can’t figure out how to get my family to go along.

And that’s where I run into my other little problem – raising a child in the context of a family. Everybody has needs, and they don’t always spread them out so that you can deal with them one-by-one when you are well-rested-and-emotionally-prepared. That’s not the way life happens. No, life likes to descend on you like a shit-storm of need, nausea and broken appliances. It’s failing grades and juggling bills and used Kleenex and muddy paw prints on the spread you just washed. Life happens in your face, when you least expect it, or when you honestly think the very next thing will be the last straw. You know what happens when you have that thought? Something awful, usually.

Life is like someone calling your name over and over, but they never come to you. You must seek out the caller and carry out their commands. Can you get me a towel? I don’t understand my chemistry homework. Will you get those dogs to stop barking? I’m stressed, I’m nauseous, listen to my problems, fix it, fix it, fix it! It’s like being a genie with a house full of frantic wishers. And just when you think you have a handle on it all, when you have put your house in order, walked the dogs, and anticipated and prepared for every child’s (and your partner’s) every need – life will surprise you. It will wait until you have done your very best, until you are sweaty and dirty and proud of yourself, and then it will walk up, wag its tail, look you right in the eye – and then hike its leg and pee on your shoes.

So this is where I would probably be expected to add a paragraph about how it’s all worth it in the end and how the joys by far outweigh the stresses. And yes, that’s true, though I’m not feeling it so much at this particular moment. Because we all know, you have to work for that attitude. So this is my first step – writing it down. It’s therapeutic. Then I’m going to go have a cleaning frenzy all over my house, because that’s what I do when I’m stressed and don’t know what to do next. (I already had a cleaning frenzy on our yard last evening and may have been a bit too vigorous with the weed-eater and gardening shears. I’m a little afraid to look.)

So after I’ve obsessively put our house (and yard) in order for a few hours, I will be sweaty, tired, satisfied in a way only a career house-not-wife can be after a day spent cleaning, and happy to see my partner and our children when they get home this evening. And we are going to have a happy and fun Friday evening together with lots of hugs and positive affirmations. But until then, I’m going to go bleach something.

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Worrywart

I was born without a sense of humor. I am, however, very high-strung. Not a good combination. A few years ago, I decided that the key to managing stress in my life was humor. I just had to learn how to find the funny in life. It was helpful that my partner has a hair-triggered wit. Funny, clever things just fly out of her mouth. But there are different kinds of funny and hers is sometimes a little dark. So I starting reading every book by every funny writer I could get my hands on – the idea being that complete immersion might help even a hard case like me. It did. I grew a sense of humor. Not only can I laugh more often, sometimes, I can even make people laugh. Happy day.

My next t-shirt (via zazzle.com)

But I have to practice pretty regularly or it goes away. The following is part of an exercise I try sometimes as a tool for managing stress. I made a list of all the things I was worried about and then tried to write a funny version. Some of the tougher items never made the funny list but a few did. And if you’re honest, a few pretty stupid things will appear too, which is always fun. Anyway, it helped to change my mood.

Some of the things I worry about:

…that my partner sometimes talks about herself in the third person (and I can’t always tell if she’s joking).

…that #2 son seems to be experiencing a kind of school-induced narcolepsy which may someday lead to a permanent position at Burger King.

…that #3 son can play Minecraft for 6 hours straight without stopping to eat or to go to the bathroom.

…that #1 son might decide to get another enormous skull tattoo.

….that menopausal is my new normal.

…that global warming will flood my favorite vacation spot.

…that I won’t be able to stand the winters in Canada when we move there to escape the climate of intolerance in the US.

…that nobody will notice that pun.

…that Nintendo is putting out a new damn expensive game system.

…that our sons will decide not to have a Halloween party and I won’t get to decorate the house. (No fun without an audience.)

…that my computer might crash leaving me to deal with the real world without Facebook, email, Photoshop, or my blog.

…that my dogs get bored.

…that unless he learns to do his homework, #2 son will be living in our basement when he’s thirty spending all his time off from Burger King playing Dungeons & Dragons or video games with Friday-night interludes to watch movie classics like Jackass 2 with his big brother.

…that #3 son will be living in the basement with him.

…that they’ve already seen Jackass 2.

…that it made them laugh.

…that whether I’ll get skin cancer was probably determined by a sunburn I got in Ft. Lauderdale in 1977.

…that I really am a hoarder.

…that my IQ is inversely proportional to my age.

…that God is real and she’s pissed.

…that hip hop won’t die.

…that I’ll never own my own bookstore or little beach motel.

…that when I clean out my email inbox, I will find messages that I really should have responded to weeks ago (Happened this morning. My apologies to Catherine, Jennifer, my brother, Scott, and Daddy.)

…that one day, instead of washing the dishes, I will take them out in the driveway and smash them one by one against the concrete.

…that I am forgetting something important (often true).

…that if my short term memory and attention span keep deteriorating at the present rate, I’ll need a full-time keeper by the time I’m 50.

…that I’m going to think of something super-clever to put on this list after I’ve published it on my blog.

So what do you worry about? What would be on your list? How do you deal with stress?

Distressed Relief – Eighteen Ways to Manage Extreme Tension and Latent Hostility in Your Life

  1. Don’t pay for therapy. Stress management that costs that much and doesn’t involve a beach house and a hot tub is counterproductive.
  2. Do exercise. Vigorously. Every day. Then you’ll be too tired to choke the living s*** out of all the idiots you have to share the planet with.
  3. Don’t turn on the news. Just because the world is going to hell in a bucket, doesn’t mean you have to watch.
  4. Do have furry pets. (Not hamsters, though. Hamsters are little balls of evil with teeth. And it’s hard to reduce your stress while you’re bleeding.)
  5. Don’t drive. Ever. Sharing a road with maniacs who speed, tailgate, weave through traffic, or honk at you for stopping for the school bus in front of you (true story) all while talking on a cell phone will do nothing but make you fantasize about choking people again.
  6. Do spend as much time as possible outside. Away from people. That part’s important. Away from people and by the ocean is ideal.
  7. Do lighten up. If you don’t have a pirate hat or a puka shell necklace, buy one now.
  8. Don’t open your kids’ progress reports. If you feel obligated to see it, be sure to have a couple of cocktails first. (Points for style if you put little umbrellas in the drinks.)
  9. Do listen to Jimmy Buffett. The man is a master of stress reduction. And he sings too.
  10. Don’t go to dentists. They are harbingers of pain and misery and they own tiny drills. Not a good combination.
  11. Do read funny books. It’s hard to be stressed when you’re laughing.*
  12. Don’t teach your teenager how to drive. You’ll be doing him a favor, because bracing your feet on the dash board and screaming every time he steps on the gas won’t do much to improve his skills or build his confidence.
  13. Don’t allow your children to make any major life decision on their own until they are at least 25. Add 5 years for boys.
  14. Do watch The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is the funniest character ever written for TV. Watch it if you haven’t already. You’ll see.
  15. Don’t go anywhere you may have to stand in line. A little known corollary of Murphy’s Law dictates that the person directly behind you will either be a bitter old lady who will bump you in the butt with her cart until the line moves or a large sweaty man in a dirty t-shirt who has no concept of personal space.
  16. Do eat mint chocolate chip ice cream. (But send someone else to the grocery store to buy it.)
  17. Don’t talk politics with friends (that you want to keep) or family. I think every American kid knows this one by the time they’re old enough to join an adult conversation, but it’s good to review the basics.
  18. Do throw away the To-do List. (Ya’ll know why.)

*My favorite funny authors: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Tom Holt, Christopher Moore, Janet Evanovich, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris.

Much Ado About To-Do Lists

Much Ado About To-Do Lists

For decades now, I’ve been chasing my own personal Holy Grail: the ultimate time-and-stress-management-tool, a perfectly constructed and prioritized To-do list. I was convinced that if I could just learn to create beautifully balanced lists, carefully weighing each factor, considering all the possible ramifications of each decision, I would find that optimal formula that would make my life magically manageable. It was a beautiful dream, but I’ve come to realize I’ve been chasing rainbows all these years. The To-do list at its best is an illusion, a will-o-the-wisp, an exercise in serious crazy-making. And this is why:

  1. Alien (creature in Alien franchise)

    Not warm and fuzzy.

    To-do lists are not warm and fuzzy. Getting to cross something off the list is pretty much all the reward you’re going to get for completing a task no matter how onerous. You’re not going to get a hug or a pat on the back or even a simple “Atta girl” from your list. It doesn’t care. It’s just an idea with an agenda, a mirage, a deceiver. It’s only reason for existence is to make you feel inadequate.

  2. To-do lists are big and scary. I’m often so overwhelmed by the collective enormity of tasks I am responsible for, that I will spend my whole day purposely doing something that’s not on the list just to relieve list-induced stress. But you can’t escape the list once you’ve created it. It will hide in closets and under your bed, haunt your dreams, invade your every waking thought, crawl out of the TV at you like the creepy dead girl in The Ring until you finally give in and do something on the list. You hear that phone ringing? Don’t answer it. Just do the list.
  3. To-do lists are not fair. In my mind, I don’t get proper credit for completing a task, if it wasn’t on the list. It doesn’t matter that I finally cleaned the garage, if I didn’t write in on the list first and check it off after, I am not allowed to feel satisfied. (I didn’t make the rules. I just follow them. Remember the list is not your friend.)
  4. To-do lists are organic. They grow. They’re like kudzu of the brain. Kudzu in the deep South in the summer where the mad green creeper sucks what it needs right out of the daylight and heat and air, materializes up to 13 inches of new healthy vine an hour, and turns trees and abandoned buildings into big green haunts overnight. Try and hack that back and see if you don’t feel like a crazy woman with a machete fighting a losing battle. Point is, do-lists never die and I will never be done with mine. No matter what I do, by the time I am done, my list will grow more tasks.
  5. To-do lists spawn. Like frogs in a pond. One day the water’s clear and the next, there’s a swarm of little polliwogs already trying to sprout limbs. No matter how I’ve tried, there’s just no way that I can find to prioritize everything with just one list or even two lists. Lists proliferate and pretty soon you have a half dozen lists based on category or urgency. Perhaps this is because I am internally conflicted about the real purpose of my list(s). Is it to remember and prioritize tasks or to satisfy some compulsive need I have to create the illusion of order and control in my life? I suspect the latter and should probably give up do-listing immediately for the sake of my emotional and mental health.

So now that I know the dirty little secrets of To-do listing I should give it up. I know it will eat my time and devour my peace of mind. I should let it go. Free myself from the tyranny of prioritized task itemization. Let go of my yen for control and order. Life is chaotic and I am a feather in the wind. Unfortunately, I’m still a feather with a lot to do.