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The Pressure of Parenting: Quality not quantity

When you’ve been primary carer for your children for over six years to find yourself in a shared custody agreement following the breakdown of a relationship is absolutely excruciating. The story of the end of the marriage has become irrelevant. The reasons why you’ve come to this arrangement for the children are complex and important but also now in the past tense. You’re living this situation, now.

Used to spending every after school, evening, weekend and holiday with them, often flying solo to boot, knowing in intricate details their wants and needs, to find yourself apart from your children for fifty percent of the time – their time, your time – is a huge pivot. A loss, in effect, which you have to come to terms with and which involves navigating an unchartered sea of emotions.

And it takes a while. At first, the days you spend away from them can feel in some ways liberating, the opportunity to pursue work without clock-watching, mental space as an adult without dependents drawing down on your energy levels, personal interests may emerge once more. But then they come back to you, and you feel fraudulent, guilty and inept, not ready to step up.

Slowly, slowly, you find ways. First you acknowledge that the transition affects you as much as it does them, and that it’s ok to feel jangled, nervous and anxious about seeing your own flesh and blood. It doesn’t make you weird. Knowing how to cut their apple up exactly the way they like it isn’t going to cut it anymore, but you find ways to ease the coming together, an activity, a small ritual or simply making time and not rushing.

Then you give yourself a chance to get used to the new normal. One weekend isn’t going to set the tone for the years to come so it’s ok to try things and get it (occasionally spectacularly) wrong. It’s all the more rewarding when things click if you throw a few failed attempts at being ‘fun mum’ into the mix. Eventually it all starts to feel a little more natural, more normal. For everyone.

There are days when going through the motions of the routine, physically being there and available, are all you can muster. You may have had every intention of showing up with more vim but when it comes to it you’re exhausted. You’ll feel bad about it, but everyone is fed, warm, clean and where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

Essentially you just need to relax. If you do, the children will. Like horses picking up the worried energy of a nervous rider, children can see straight through you in ways they’re not even aware of. Breathe, slow down, adopt a calm tone and more of a laissez-faire attitude. Accept that everyone is allowed to be tired, stressed or grumpy just like they were before. There are no awards for superheroes.

And then realisation dawns. Just as staying fit and healthy is going to go in your favour, the best thing you can do in service of your new family dynamic is to work on mental agility. That way you can use your intuition more and tune in to the frequency of your children, something that time apart doesn’t need to corrode. Clarity has arrived – it’s a simple case of quality over quantity.

Once you’ve had the light bulb moment you wonder why on earth it didn’t occur to you before. But give yourself a break. You’re going through as big a change as your small people are and forgiving yourself for messing it up periodically, giving yourself permission to make it up as you go along and taking joy in ‘muddling through’ is key. It’s what every parent is doing after all.


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