‘Sit next to me. Put your phone down, turn it off, and watch me.’

These were the crystal clear instructions from my three year old at 8:45am this morning. She was painting. I was trying to read the news, quietly drinking my tea. Our needs were not in harmony.

Since we entered lockdown, sheltering at home, my once-independent preschooler has become my shadow. Or rather, I have become hers.

‘You come with me,’ she says, every time a game entices her into a different room or even the other side of the same room. She demands my constant presence: to do a wee, to get a toy, to fetch water. ‘But I’ll be all by myself!’, comes the indignant wail if I say I am going to take a quick shower, or prepare her lunch, or even — how dare I? — go to the toilet.

Her needs are intense, constant and sometimes — yes — stifling. And we have a one year old too.

What interests a 3 year old does not necessarily interest me.

I have always loved kids. They make me laugh, intrigue me, remind me of what really matters. And I feel that way about my own kids too.

But I do not find Sticker Dollies fascinating. I do not find clearing up paint from my baby’s mouth, hair and teeth fascinating. I do not find playing ‘vets’ with old potatoes and the dishwasher cutlery basket, for an hour, endlessly fascinating.

Yes, I find it sweet and funny. And also frustrating, numbing, excruciating in a I’m going to scream if this doesn’t end soon kind of way.

It feels like betrayal to write that, but it is true.

Enter Lockdown Life

Lockdown has made everything harder. If I don’t give my kids full-time attention, who will? But if I do, I become a mad, mean version of myself. 🤷‍♀️

The intensity of 24/7 parenting with no respite — not even a trip to the shops, a playdate — is unimaginable. Our worlds have shrunk, and the demands on us have magnified. More than one mom-friend has tentatively confessed this same truth: ‘I just don’t find my kids interesting.’ And the dangerous conclusion: ‘I’m not a good mom.’

Meanwhile, our preschoolers are melting down more, falling apart more, clinging more. ‘They cry all the time, yell at me, stamp, and fight over EVERYTHING… like a pencil,’ one friend tells me, despairing. And another: ‘She just started crying out of nowhere, saying: Mummy, I just want a friend to play with.’ Her preschooler has started playing with her own reflection. Maybe we’re not the 24/7 Dream Team for our kids either!

It takes a village to raise a child, they say, and now there is no village. There are two adults, and a TV. Single parents have my wholehearted respect.

I watch my friends with school-age children with awe. Their kids are old enough to be semi-independent, so they can almost pretend it’s possible to keep working full-time while homeschooling. How is that even possible? Answer: it’s not. As Chloe I. Cooney said so beautifully, the parents are not all right.

In our family, our kids are young enough that we can’t keep working our usual hours. At 3 and 1, they cannot take care of themselves. If one is immersed in play, the other is not. Even in the blissful 90-minutes where Peppa Pig entertains our preschooler, our baby shouts, cries, clings, eats earth, eats ticks, asks for our presence to keep him happy, safe and alive.

My needs, their needs

‘Now we wash our paintbrush… and black… and we wash our brush… and brown… and we wash our brush…’

It’s 8:50am. My daughter has won me over, and I am sitting beside her as she paints. She wants my presence so much that she narrates what’s she’s doing, in case my scattered attention can’t arrive through just one sense. She needs me to see her AND to hear her. ‘Look at me Mama!’, comes the refrain, countless times a day, as she dances, plays and engages in deeply interesting activities like chewing her toast.

The invitation to be with her is so compelling. And the pull towards my own needs, interests and curiosities equally strong.

This last week, I’ve arrived at bedtime with a sense of regret. Was I there for my kids today? Did I give enough of myself? Or did I hold back, with a silent inner ‘no’ to the reality of lockdown with kids?

After dark, when the house is finally still, I watch our baby on the monitor, smiling at his bum-in-the air sleep. I creep into my daughter’s room, peer at the soft outline of her sleeping form. Now that she is quiet, I feel my longing to be close. I feel my love flowing, fiercely, towards her. I feel the urgent need to be there for her.

But what can I do? I have needs too, and there is no space for them if I’m a 24/7 playmate, chef and housemaid to my two small children.

‘Be fully with a child and then let him be’ — Magda Gerber

When my daughter was a baby — six months or so — I came across Magda Gerber’s work.

‘What an infant needs — what every human being wants — is to experience the full undivided attention of a parent or other significant person. But nobody can pay attention all of the time’, says Gerber in Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect. The truth of these words hit me, right in the heart. In trying to be always attentive to my child’s needs, I was paying half-attention, all the time. And that was serving no one.

Gerber’s solution is simple. Be fully present when you are ‘caregiving’ (changing a diaper, nursing, bathing, dressing etc). And when you are not caregiving, lean out. Let your child explore their world, follow their curiosities, engage in their own play. ‘That’s what I would recommend,’ says Gerber, ‘to be fully with a child and then let him be.’

The relief was immense. I did not have to be on the floor, playing with wooden blocks for hours. Instead I could sit a small distance away, observing. Ready to be engaged if my daughter somehow jammed her hand behind the cupboard, or if she brought me a block, inviting me to join her play. Meanwhile, I could be in my own world, thinking my own thoughts, doing my own thing. It was not all about her.

Chunking up the day

As my daughter grew and as our second child came along, this ‘chunking’ of attention became my lifeline. Divide the day into manageable chunks: three hours or so. In those chunks, have a single focus. In the good old days (when we had it easy and never even realised it!), it might be a play date, a trip to the park, toddler group, seeing grandparents. With snacks, meals and travel time, those three hour windows became workable. Spaces I could give myself to fully.

Wherever you are, be there, I’ve learned through my years of meditation practice. Pretty soon into my parenting journey, I discovered that the only way I could do that was to carve out times to be wholly ‘off’ from childcare. So, we invested in post-natal doulas (just a few hours, a few times a week), and became militant about naps. That made small windows of time for me to work. To go for a walk in nature, to join a yoga class, to breathe. Time to be by myself, and remember who the hell I was.

Even now she’s three and a half, we still put our daughter down for ‘quiet time’ every day. Often she cries when we tell her it’s time to go upstairs. ‘But I’m still play-ey,’ she says. For a second, I waver. But no. We need this down time. All of us. It’s part of the rhythm of our lives. It’s what allows me to be with her, fully, in other moments. There are some boundaries you defend with your whole heart. And this is one of them.

So now, in lockdown, we fall back on the same principles. We chunk up the day. Early morning: my husband is with our kids. Morning activities: me. Lunch: muddle through together. Afternoon: my husband (with naps, quiet-time and TV). We are the ultimate shift-workers. Rolling along like two old tyres, as my husband likes to say.

How can I meet both needs?

How can I meet both needs: mine, and my children’s? It’s a question I’ve been tracking for three and a half years, since becoming a mom. It’s a question that returns, insistent, always with different answers.

I have come to the reluctant realisation that there is no (single) answer, no solution, no ‘work life balance’ formula. There is only a fluid dance which we give ourselves to, adapting to its changing moves, tempos and rhythms. What’s needed here, now, this week, today? 

Just as we find a rhythm that seems to work for all, something changes. A new work project, new sibling, new milestone, a changing personality — or Covid-19  — asks us to remould our lives once again, to keep meeting everyone’s basic needs.

Parenting, for me, means tuning into multiple radio stations. I listen to my needs, my preschooler’s needs, my baby, my work, family life, my partner and my inner life. I listen to all those pulls, and use my power to stay centred. And then I mindfully turn towards what is most alive, most needed in each moment.

It’s messy, exhausting, frustrating in its endless ability to shape-shift. But it’s also alive. Real. The best kind of dance.

If you worry you’re failing as a lockdown parent, you’re not. You are simply human.

We can never meet everyone’s needs. We can only be there, fully, some of the time. And that is enough.

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