It’s 4:50 p.m., a long day home with the kids is coming to an end, and your house looks bombed.
The dishes from breakfast and lunch are still in the sink, there’s wet laundry in the wash (on its third cycle, because you keep forgetting about it), you’re still in the clothes you slept in and your lofty plans to take the kids to the art gallery turned into a measly walk for coffee.
So, you start tidying. You throw plates in the dishwasher, you vacuum the living room rug, you do a smell test on the wet clothes and throw them in the dryer. You need to feel like you’ve been productive today. Like you were busy.
The truth is: You were busy. And also: “busy” is relative.
There’s a perception that parents who are home with kids during the day have it easy (they don’t), and therefore should be productive. That means finishing chores, taking the kids to toddler time, doing enriching sensory games at the kitchen table, and getting dinner made. And sure, there are days when that happens: Miraculous days when the stars align. But more often than not, days are filled with meltdowns, spills, injuries and demands for snacks. You can load the dishwasher, but your toddler will empty the Tupperware drawer behind your back. You can have a shower, but your preschooler will draw on your walls with lipstick. This is programmed into their DNA. It’s basically science.
What I learned when I went off to work and my husband stayed home At-home parents are endlessly busy, but often have nothing to show for it at the end of the day except for overturned playrooms and dirty faces. Does this mean they did nothing? Of course not. And this is where we need to change our perception of “busy.”
We’ve been raised from childhood to believe that working hard comes with tangible, quantifiable payouts. You train in your sport, and your payoff is an award. You study at school, and this is reflected in your grades. You complete your tasks at your job, and this is recognized in your paycheque. From kindergarten onwards, we learn that being “busy” is a sign of character, that it’s measurable, and that it comes with rewards.
This belief follows us into parenthood. So, moms and dads on parental leave suddenly take on previously shared tasks like grocery shopping, dinner prep, dog walking and vacuuming. They buy memberships to zoos and art galleries, join play groups and circle times. They fill their days because accomplishments are supposed to be quantifiable. The problem is that on those messy, greasy top-knot, dirty leggings, don’t-want-to-leave-the-house-days, we are racked with guilt.
Here’s what we all need to remember: Being a parent means the nature of “busy” changes. It means working hard, with nothing concrete to show for it. And we need to be OK with that. In fact, we need to celebrate it.
To the mom who planned to take her kids to the zoo, but instead took them for a walk around the block so they could blow dandelion fuzz: Your kids had a blast today. They don’t always need structure. Sometimes they just need to find out what happens when tiny fluffy seeds are lifted by the breeze.
To the dad who bailed on the parent-and-tot park date to let the kids play in the backyard with plastic bowls: You have nothing to prove. The backyard is filled with more wonders than adults can imagine. They’ll fall asleep tonight dreaming about the way the grass felt under their feet.
To the new mom who got out of the house for only one hour so she could get groceries: You killed it. Even if the baby cried in the cart the whole time. Even if you had to choke back tears in the frozen food aisle. Even if you were wearing two different shoes. An outing is an outing, and I know how long it can take just to get out of the house.
I see the value of your exhausting, unpaid, and often thankless work. You spent the day loving your children and that—at 5 p.m., when the house is bombed and everyone is a mess—is a wonderful accomplishment.
You don’t need to prove your worth to anyone. Not even yourself.