It was very sobering realising that my choices and routines did not just set the rhythm and stability of my world, but that they equally affected the rhythm and stability of every life that was intimately connected with mine. Especially those that were powerless and utterly dependent on me. Children especially, are as corks on the water – they go with the momentum of the family dynamic and learn that that is “just how it is”. The experiences they have, become their sense of what is “normal”. And that normal childhood, becomes their normal parenting, so the cycle perpetuates.
The rhythms we create and inculcate are very influential. They way it happens for our children, becomes “right” to them. They have nothing to compare it to, so whatever it is, is right to them. Even if it is not right at all. And usually, the rhythm that suits a busy executive, affects the family in an inverse correlation. The more stable and to their liking the routines are, the less those routines consider and accommodate family. Shocking, but true. I wonder how many of us default to a world that is comfortable or manageable for ourselves, and do not realise (God forbid we don’t actually even care) the impact that we are having around us.
So our partners get 3-5 hours a day, but they are not exclusively theirs. Until the kids are in bed, those hours were dominated with bathing, bickering, toy-picking-up (usually locating the Lego by standing on it etc) and such. Then we get some time, but its including chores and such – like tidying, or washing, or cleaning, or whatever.
Our kids get a maximum of 2-3 hours a day, and those hours are generally spend chasing them OUT of bed in the mornings, and chasing them INTO bed in the evenings! My own kids are a beautiful chaos, all 4 of them. And they take a lot of wrangling. And in my work mode, I would quickly revert to the Sergeant-Major parenting style where lots of things have to get done in a specific time frame, and I was going to get the result I wanted, come hell or high water. Frequently that meant chasing kids around, stopping fights, keeping dinner times on track, and, eventually, but usually, losing my cool or becoming stressed.
My wife, watching her man at home, saw nothing of the smooth calm professional who got his work done on time and solved problems left, right and centre; influencing outcomes, and designing systems and processes to get things done smoothly and simply. She saw a time poor, stressed and tired person who just wasn’t coping with a 16 hour nonstop day – from 07h00 to 23h00 every day, kids, work, kids, wife, sleep. And repeat.
Where was the “win” for my wife; for my kids? Looking back, I can’t see one. Sure there were beautiful moments, but what must it be like to be always the partner of a tired, stressed workaholic? And to be the child of a guy like that? It has taken me time and effort to look at the world I created for them, from THEIR perspective. Not just imagining it – that is too quick and too easy cheap a substitute for real understanding. It cheapens their needs, to pretend it can be understood through “imagining” or guesswork. To imagine something is not to know it, it is just to fake empathy and paint in broad brush strokes where a pinpoint accuracy is in fact needed. Empathy costs, and it hurts. It has to, or its not empathy.
We need to empathise. Actually to cease embracing the self-centric perspective on the world we live in (and force them to live in too), and KNOW their world. FEEL it; and connect with it through their eyes, and emotions. What does that mean? Perhaps an illustration from a book on marriage that I once read: When getting married, it is not enough to know what your partner needs. It is not enough, even, to UNDERSTAND what your partner needs. It is not even enough, apparently to make your partners needs “as important as your own”. (The competition for time and energy still exists, eventually forcing damaging choices between their priorities and ours).
Apparently, the key to forming a new team where both parties are completely on the same page, is to make your partners needs, your own. Her needs, ARE your needs. His needs, ARE your needs. Challenging stuff, and I do not speak as an expert!
So, coming back to family.
Our family’s needs, need to be our needs. For the time we are with them, it is my suggestion that what we need, is what THEY need. Nothing more, nothing less. Our partners need to connect. We need to connect. The real us needs to be seen, and appreciated. The real them, needs to be seen and appreciated. Not the bedraggled executive meeting the tired kid wrangler for an exhausted hello peck and a distracted conversation. Or whatever it is that each of us does when we arrive home. Real connection takes real effort, and the casting side of our own needs… unless, our needs ARE their needs, and their needs ARE our needs. Then there is no compromise, no sacrifice. WE need to connect, so we connect and in doing so are connected with. WE need to feel safe and loved, so we do and in doing so we offer sanctuary. We need to feel appreciated, so we appreciate and in so doing receive it back. It’s a beautiful, unselfish symmetry.
If they need to read Lightning McQueen® stories for the hundredth time, then that is what WE need as well. I can tell you from personal experience, that reading for the hundredth time, and pumping all the expression into the story again so that the little ones feel the excitement and live and breath it when you read it – it becomes the most important thing we do. I am not lying there “enduring” a childish story and waiting to go downstairs and relax. Reading that story is EVERYTHING I want to do for those 10 minutes. And tucking them in slowly and gently, praising them for their good choices that day, putting them to sleep feeling safe and loved with a smile on their face, is what I need too. Their need IS my need. I get as much from being their loving sanctuary, as they get from being loved and safe.
Its a beautiful place, and I don’t want to leave it. Of course, work will come, and I will get into a routine again. Its inevitable. But having stepped outside my routine, and stepped into the world that my routines created for them, I realise that I do not want to go back to that mercenary place. Their world should not be at the mercy of my world. Their world IS my world. My world, when I am with them, IS their world. A world of rushing adults, and misunderstood motivations, and no time and things to be done, and no moments to savour, is not what a child needs. And if its not what our children need, its not what we need either.
We should never be willing to sacrifice what they need on the altar of our lack of empathy for the world we have created for them.