Friday, June 15, 2012

Parenting: Short-Term Relief vs. Long-Term Expense

A friend just shared an interesting Washington Post column with me in which a childless woman cluelessly asks what her friends with children did with their time.  I can understand that it would be hard to imagine what life with children is like if you haven't spent time with a young family (although I don't get this particular woman's level of cluelessness), but columnist Carolyn Hax's response paints a good picture of a typical day.  But what I really liked about the article was the following sentence:

[Being a parent is] resisting constant temptation to seek short-term relief at everyone's long-term expense.

This statement mirrors the core challenge of parenting, at least as I have experienced it so far.  When you are with your kids, you are constantly working and on call, so every decision has consequences, and looking for relief certainly has many.  But then the question becomes, when is seeking relief the ever-important Taking Care of Myself (necessary) and when is it Selfish Indulgence (necessary, but less often)?

Even if you are not a parent, Hax's pithy description of the tradeoff between short-term relief and long-term expense is familiar.  So many behaviors--eating, drinking, spending money, browsing the Internet--can start out so reasonable, but then be taken to counter-productive or destructive extremes one teeny tiny short-term decision after another.  Fifteen minutes checking email turns into an hour in front of the computer--oops!

Being a parent just extends the tradeoff to such basic activities as having a complete thought (gasp!), taking a shower, loading the dishwasher, making a phone call, catching up on the news, or running an errand, let alone pursuing a hobby or meeting with friends.  I would love to do these things more often than I do, but at some point they negatively affect my parenting by taking up too much of my attention or time.  Sure, my son can tolerate playing by himself for a while, so I can do some of these things some of the time. But when I try to do too much, my son gets cranky, clingy, and starts to push back.  In my head I'm thinking something like, "Okay, the dishwasher is running, now if I can just get the laundry folded..."  It sounds so reasonable!  Except when it isn't.  I find that it's often hard to identify when it is reasonable to do things for me and when an activity (or pattern of activity) incurs a long-term expense, and then it is even harder to resist temptation and stay on the path toward my long-term parenting goals.

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