Elma Family Kitty Motherhood Pause for Thought Pip

On productivity


Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade family life

Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade family life

  Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade family life

Do you ever have those days where you feel like you’ve been busy all day but you haven’t actually achieved anything? The days when you’re not so much the swan, swimming serenely along while paddling furiously under the surface, but more of a pedalo, all splash and visible effort but not actually moving in your chosen direction.  I suspect it is in the way of things that parents of small children have more than a few days like that, so really we should expect them and embrace them as par for the course, shouldn’t we?

But yet, according to my sample size of two (my sister and me) those are the days when we feel most stressed and start paddling ever more earnestly though without any positive impact.  

We’re both full time parents at the moment, me on maternity leave and my sister taking a career break while the tiny nephew is tiny.  Our ‘job’ is to mother our assorted offspring and yet we realised that we both feel tremendous pressure to make sure that we’ve done something visibly productive with our days, to have got the house tidied or done the laundry or the shopping or decluttered, organised and magically improved our homes.  

It’s different to the internal motivation for a nice clean tidy house; I’m not the most naturally tidy of people, and H and I have hobbies that come with baggage (and bookcases and drawers and boxes and, well, fibre, textiles and paint all take up a bit of space) but I do like it when our house is the tidy version of itself and it feels homely and comfortable and I can settle down to some serious Duplo building without wondering whether I should just nip off to do the washing up. I still have some serious plans for decluttering this year (although I really ought to do something towards making them reality).  

No, this is that feeling that we need to justify how we’ve spent our days, to have something concrete to show to say “this, this is what I did today and it has value” even if it’s only that I rounded up all of the bobble hats from around the house and put them back in the bag on the hall cupboard door.

And we’ve no idea where that pressure is really coming from.  I know with absolute certainty that it’s not coming from our husbands. The boys like a tidy house as much as the rest of us, but they aren’t giving us wife points on the basis of how much we’ve achieved, nor are they really fussed about the house; if there’s supper, space in the kitchen to cook breakfast in the kitchen and clean clothes for the morning H is pretty happy; train tracks all over the lounge floor really don’t bother him and I’m pretty certain he can’t tell whether or not I’ve hoovered the stairs.

I think it would be all to easy to say that this is a guilt imposed by society’s view of mothers; that raising our children isn’t considered to be a valid way to spend our days, that if we’re at home all day we really should stop eating bonbons on the sofa while watching trashy morning tv and do something useful with ourselves, that it’s all part of the systematic undervaluing of motherhood (or parenthood).  But I don’t think that’s true.  I’m sure I could find you plenty of examples of comments levied against mothers of small children that say that if they’re home all day with the children then the household is their job, but at the same time I think there are also occasions when motherhood is put on a pedestal; for example wanting to work part time or have flexible hours because you need to pick your children up from nursery is seen as a completely legitimate reason, wanting to shift your hours because your commute is hellish and you’d really like to do it one less day a week, or you want to work when you’re most effective isn’t as easy a sell.

I’m not sure I can quite bring myself to say that parenting is overvalued, but you know what I mean.

So if I’m not being subliminally undermined by Daily Mail readers and random people on the internet then what is at the root of it?  

While parenting isn’t necessarily undervalued, I so think sometimes the time it takes to do things with small children is tow is underestimated.  What am I saying “I think”, I know it is because I underestimate how long it takes to do anything.  If I just did the washing up start to finish it takes a lot less time than when the girls are helping me, or when I have to keep popping in and out of the lounge to police the sharing of the one pink crayon that they both need to complete their pictures, or when I’m wearing a little boy in the sling and trying not to get him too wet.  Even four years down the line I wildly overestimate what I can get done in a day and I strongly suspect I’m still basing my time estimates on the pre children era.  And that’s definitely setting myself up for failure.

And perhaps the drive to get things done that I can actually point at and say “I did this” is just a side effect of work; it would be surprising if years and years of being measured and rated by results didn’t rub off of me somehow, and if there’s one thing that’s certain in parenting, it’s that you won’t see the results until much much later.

So what do you think? Is it just our little sample of two that feels this need to show we’ve done something with out time or do we all need to retrain ourselves on how long it take to do things and ditch the inner guilt?



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  • Jojo 18/02/2015 at 9:06 am

    Such an interesting topic Carie! Pre children I worked as an administrator in a busy office. One of my roles was to ensure that my staff did their jobs as effectively as possible as quickly as possible. Sounds soulless now… I was an inveterate organiser and “lister” for want of a better word. Fast forward three children… and absolutely, even by the time number three arrived I still could not function on a daily basis without reaching the end of it without a ticked off list of some sort in order to feel validated. My time managed organised soul had some SERIOUS adjusting to do to realise that so much of parenting young children can’t be time managed and that your plans are easier cope with if they are elastic as the stretchiest rubber band (which doesn’t ping back) It took me ages to feel comfortable with the idea that child rearing report cards didn’t need to be graded by how much I had done each day and whether I had done it according to plan. I think that you are spot on in saying that work based achievement criteria somehow sticks and it takes time to meld it into something a bit different and accept that it’s ok. So much of what is wonderful about bringing but young children is the ability to scrap the plan and for what seems most appropriate RIGHT now, even if that is standing shifting from one foot to the other whilst your child watches a caterpiller undulate down the path for the fist time.(Providing you haven’t a doctors appointment or whatever to go to that is). Fast forward several million years. I now only have one child left at school and I work from home. The tighter lists (work and domestic)have reappeared. And no my son is no longer allowed to spend 25 minutes putting his shoe on the right foot. The school transport(me) will go without him… I have things to do!

    • Carie 18/02/2015 at 11:03 pm

      It’s so true how satisfying a good to do list can be! It just needs to be a nice short vague one right now I think!!

  • Kristina 18/02/2015 at 11:23 am

    I can relate! And I too have wondered where this pressure stems from and have crossed my husband and “society at large” off the list. I think the internal need to have something to show for our days may even reach back to our own school days, when every little activity and project was graded and given gold stars. I know I really struggle with the ability to work independently on anything without some sort of external oversight telling me I’m doing a good job! It’s just so deep seated. But awareness is a start right? Although I’m not sure I’ll ever feel cured of this…

    • Carie 18/02/2015 at 11:04 pm

      That’s true – perhaps for most of us parenting and specifically being at home full time with little ones is the first time since we were four that we didn’t get gold stars/certificates/a salary for what we’re doing – it’s an interesting thought.

  • Eline @ Pasta & Patchwork 18/02/2015 at 12:49 pm

    Oh it’s definitely not just the two of you. Being freelance, the number of hours I do “work work” each day varies massively. I know this, my husband knows this. And more importantly husband couldn’t give two hoots, but I still feel the need to demonstrate that I’ve done something useful in terms of “house work” if it’s been a quiet “work work” day. In my head I know this is ridiculous, but I think years and years of grade-based schooling and results-based work will indeed do that to you. If you figure out how to retrain yourself to ditch the habit and the guilt, let me know!

    • Carie 18/02/2015 at 11:05 pm

      Ditto!! I know I wrote about needing a bit of unworking to get into the swing of my maternity leave but perhaps it needs to go a little deeper!!

  • Jess @ Picnics in the Rain 18/02/2015 at 2:24 pm

    A really interesting read Carie. It’s definitely not just you and your sister, I feel the same pressure to have something to ‘show’ for my day, and that pressure most definitely does not come from my husband! You’re definitely right though, re-training yourself to recognise everything takes longer with a little one (or 3 in your case) in tow is a good first step. I still like to have a to-do list for the day as I feel immense satisfaction in ticking things off, but it doesn’t have nearly as much on it as the pre-Rosalie days!

    • Carie 18/02/2015 at 11:06 pm

      Ah yes, the do to lists, or rather the can do lists have shrunk a lot in recent years!

  • sustainablemum 18/02/2015 at 3:57 pm

    I think it is about re-educating ourselves. I could still be feeling like this as my children, at 10 and 5.5 are at home with me everyday. It does get easier as they get older, when they are babies and so dependent on you to meet their every need your time is pulled into meeting that. But when they stop wearing nappies, can get themselves dressed, put their own shoes on, get their own breakfast it feels like you have all the time in the world…..but that doesn’t mean the time is used any more wisely!

    • Carie 18/02/2015 at 11:09 pm

      I think that’s part of it – at the moment both my children and my sister’s are at an age where they have needs that need to be met right now and can only be done by me so you can never guarantee yourself a block of time to get anything big done and when you do everything piecemeal it’s easy to feel like you haven’t done anything.

  • Anna @ the next big journey 19/02/2015 at 1:39 pm

    I can really identify with this – when I’m at home, I always have ridiculously overambitious to-do lists and then alternate between feeling like I have to tick ‘useful’ things off the list and feeling guilty about not spending quality time with the children without having half a mind on the washing up etc. It’s always better when we’re out and about and the visual to-do list isn’t in sight! Have you ever read What Mothers Do (especially when it looks like nothing) by Naomi Stadlen? It’s very reassuring about the demands of looking after children – all those interruptions, answering of toddler questions, constant adjustment of plans around tantrums, late naps, poo explosions – it IS hard work sometimes, even if the only sign of it at the end of the day is that “everyone’s fed and no-one’s dead” as one parenting forum has it.

    • Carie 19/02/2015 at 9:59 pm

      I haven’t – but I think I need to! I definitely agree that it’s much easier when we’re out, I think you feel less torn and so quite often that makes the outing go smoothly

  • sally 20/02/2015 at 11:11 pm

    Definitely not alone, and as with so many conundrums I’m sure it’s a complex mix of factors, most of it guilt/inferiority based in some way I reckon – even if that’s deeply buried! I think the best thing is to make sure you have the right ‘to do’ list – so it has to have things like ‘take the children to the park’, ‘make lunch together’, ‘play with lego’ etc on it rather than just the ‘ironing’ etc, then you get lots of ticks and do feel like you got a lot done after all!