At this stage of quarantine parenting, I've been struggling with feeling guilty for not doing enough AMAZING EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES™ with my toddler. But then I started thinking about the stuff she really loves to do, and turns out, she just wants me to spend time with her. She is content doing the most mundane stuff, as long as we're doing it together. I started reflecting on my strengths as a parent, and while I am not a Pinterest mom by ANY stretch of the imagination (not sure I'll ever pull off an actual birthday party), I am proud of how I make it a priority to include Julia when I cook—because I love cooking and I want her to have the opportunity to love it as well.
I wanted to write about this and share to encourage three groups of women: those who, like me, are in the thick of parenting (we don't have to plan shiny activities all the dang day long, mamas), those who don't have kids yet (don't be afraid) and those who are done parenting (your kids fondly remember all these seemingly boring things you did with them, I promise).
I love to cook. I love to eat. It’s a huge part of our lifestyle and one of my favorite ways to unwind at the end of a long day. Rather than being a chore, it’s one of my only hobbies. When I was pregnant with Julia, I remember thinking I’d better cook all my favorite meals now, because I wouldn’t be able to cook the same kinds of food after having a baby. This was just one area of life I thought would be unrecognizable after having children—I pictured motherhood to be so draining and all-encompassing that I’d have to forego all of my own interests. My mindset was shaped by popular mommy culture—you know what I’m talking about. Coffee, wine, exhaustion, etc.
The truth is a lot more optimistic than I imagined. These little people do require a lot from us. They are a 24/7 job, and just like any job, there are great days and hard days! But the beautiful thing about children is they are so teachable, and they love so unconditionally. They really just want to be with us! As adults, we have the opportunity to set the tone of our home and create the kind of environment in which we want to live. Because our little kids want our time more than anything else, we can do just about anything with them and they’ll enjoy it if they feel included. If I want to cook, I have the ability to teach my kids to participate in that activity with me—to sit on the counter and help me move vegetables from the cutting board to the sheet pan, to dump out measuring cups into a bowl and even to stir a pot on the stove. If I want to take long walks, it’s totally possible to teach a child to stay on the sidewalk or to hold hands when crossing the street. For kids, it’s so much more about spending time together than it is about the actual activity. So why not include them in what we love or even in things we have to do, like cleaning or going to the grocery store (in non-Corona times, of course)?
Like anything worth doing, including kids in our day-to-day tasks or hobbies is hard work. It will be a disaster the first several times. I cannot tell you how many messes I’ve cleaned up in the kitchen after I let Julia “help” me. It takes much longer when she’s participating. But as she’s gotten older and we’ve practiced the rules over and over, she is content to sit on the counter for long stretches, and I don’t worry a bit about her touching a knife or burning herself on the stove. Cooking with her has become one of the best parts of my day. After months of teaching, we’ve finally reached the stage where it’s enjoyable. I imagine if I hadn’t allowed her to join in, cooking time would be miserable—she’d be pulling on my legs, begging me to give her my attention. Instead, we are working together to do something productive that we both enjoy.
We’re in the “still teaching” phase of going on walks. Julia recently decided she does not want to sit in her stroller anymore, so we began the work of teaching her how to go on a walk. There is SO MUCH for a 2-year-old to learn about going on a walk in the city! So many boundaries (stay on the sidewalk, stay close to mom and dad) and even a lot of etiquette (we don’t touch people’s cars, we can’t go into people’s yards). This morning, we walked to our local coffee shop to get some beans. It’s 1.2 miles each way, and we’re trying to build Julia’s stamina to be able to walk the entire way. Right now, it is WORK to take her on a long walk like this. We’re constantly redirecting, singing our “sidewalk song” (“We’ve gotta stay on the sidewalk so we stay saaafeee!” to the tune of a Daniel Tiger diddy). She wants to go in people’s yards, stops to pick flowers and sits down on every ledge or rock she can find. There are moments when she seems like she’s going to run into the street. It’s a delicate balance of understanding where she is developmentally and slowly trusting her to become more independent.
These times when we’re teaching our children new skills can be exasperating, but it’s so worth it for so many reasons. In addition to maintaining our own hobbies and passions, I think this kind of teaching is so much more valuable in the long run to our kids than teaching them their colors or their ABCs. We talk about the colors of flowers and cars on our walks, and we count as we measure flour while baking cookies. There are a million holly bushes on our street, and Julia loves to pick the berries—developing those fine motor skills, right? I think sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves with preschool-aged children to have some kind of lesson plan for teaching them, when in reality they are built to learn while playing and exploring their world. Every activity doesn’t have to be elaborately planned or kid-centric for it to be valuable.
I believe these little moments sitting on the counter cooking with mom or walking with dad are the memories my kids will take with them into adulthood—not because we did anything extraordinary, but because we spent time together doing something we loved every single day.