Priorities and Competition in Parenting

There is only so much energy a person can have in a day. We can only do so many things, care about so many things, fix so many things, etc. As a parent I find this stressful because I feel this internal pressure to GET IT RIGHT for my kids’ sake. The problem is, we don’t live in a perfect world and I am only one (very flawed) person and I spend my days raising a couple of adorable-yet-also-flawed children.

So I prioritize.

Whether we realize it or not, we all do it. As a chronic thinker I organize and reorganize my priorities constantly as I move through my day. This has recently been made even more necessary on a pragmatic level by the fact that my hands hurt (my doctor said I should “use them less” and then shook his head because he is really smart and knows how ridiculous that sounds). I physically can’t carry the laundry upstairs and put away the cast iron cookware and scrub the bathroom tub and carry the kids around. I have to pick.

This physical limitation has me thinking about other limitations. We have a certain amount of parenting capital, so to speak. That thing that allows us to (necessarily) stress our relationship with our children with phrases like, “please sit down” or “not yet, finish your food” or “please stop peeing on that”. It’s comprised of a delicate balance of the amount of feedback our kids can truly process, the amount of kindness we can muster to say things to them well, and the amount of energy we can spend helping them to really understand what we expect of them. I don’t know exactly how much I have, but I know it’s not enough to make my child perfect.

After I spend enough time and energy trying to fit into someone else’s idea of good parenting (luckily for my family I have a pretty low tolerance for pretending to be somebody else so it doesn’t usually take me more than a few days), I eventually get tired of feeling like my house is a mess, my kids are a mess, and I’m not a good enough parent. I don’t know anyone who would actually say this to me, but there are moments when I take things the wrong way because I have in mind what my friends’ priorities are, and I want my friends to be happy. The problem with trying to live someone else’s priorities over my life is that they don’t fit. It’s like trying to wear clothes that no longer suit me. They make me feel undesirable and like I am the wrong size.

The easiest way to avoid this would be to seek out only people who prioritize the same parenting items I do. But that would be sad. You see, there are a lot of people I love very much and who make my life better and make me better, and yet care about different things than me. And I really, really need that because, again, I can’t care about ALL THE THINGS. I need my children to see other people caring about different things because that’s how they’ll figure out what they should care about. In Christianese we call this “finding your calling” in case that language is helpful to you.

But.

If I am going to continue to be friends with people who have different priorities than me, I’m going to need to learn to let other people have their things back.

***********

My fellow parents,

I see how hard you work to live your priorities and I think it’s amazing. I want you to be great at what you care about most. It frees me up to be great at what I care about most. And to be clear, just because I care about something else most doesn’t mean I don’t care about your thing. One of the things I care about most is raising kids who are good at being with people. So I will teach them to care about your things, because I will teach them to care about you. I need to be able to talk about your things to my children and say, “Look! Aren’t they great at caring about that? They are making the world a better place.” But they’re little, and the first things I need to make sure they get down are my things. I’m sorry about that.

I’d like to propose a clause on our friendship. A non-compete clause. 

I don’t mean that we should not be friends with a competing party for six years after being friends. I understand that the legal definition is something like that.

I like it because it sounds contractual and binding and if we are going to do something as life-changing as not judge and compete with one another in this current parenting culture, it’s going to take one heck of a commitment to changing our thinking. Something that requires so much intentionality should sound legally binding. 

What I mean is that I am no longer willing to bond over how ridiculous some random parent is because they do x, y, or z. I am no longer willing to spend all or even any of my time with you thinking about how my children stack up against your priorities. It puts me in direct competition with you and we both lose. What we lose is the chance to actually learn from one another, because if I’m always worried about what my kids aren’t getting right, I will miss the things they are getting right. If I spend all my parenting capital trying to get my kids to be more like what I think you want them to be I will probably fail (it turns out I’m pretty bad at being you). And even if I succeed at that (which seems unlikely), I will have raised someone else’s children. And these kids, for God knows what reason, were given to me. To raise with all my Things and all my passions and all my quirks.

I need you to keep being who you are so I can learn to be who I am. Thank you for parenting in front of me. I have learned so much from you; probably more than you know, and I hope that continues because parenting is so hard and I think we need allies more than we need judges.

Your ally,

Kate

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