When it comes to expectations vs reality, reality always wins. I have long believed that expectations are the root of all disappointments, and when it comes to motherhood and time management across a busy summer holiday, never has a truer word been spoken. Because the reality vs expectations balance during what I thought was going to be an idyllic few weeks of family bonding, inevitably turned into a countdown to when school started again. And I’m guessing based on the smile my daughter had when we pulled up outside school today, it was true for both of us.
Before I became a mother, I had certain expectations of what a life with a child might entail. Michael McIntyre has a wonderful sketch about this, which basically sums up the way I used to think: it was going to be perfect. My life, post child, was a vision of calm, joyful moments, home-baked food, and long lazy days on the beach. And while I wouldn’t trade the life I have now as a mother for any of the moments before, this season I discovered that when school is out for the summer, sanity and routine go out the window too. Because what I always forgot to factor in when I thought about summer with a child, was that while school stopped for her, work didn’t stop for me.
I like to think of myself pre-motherhood as somebody who was well read in the art of being a parent. Sort of booksmart, but when booksmart is used in a mildly derogatory way; read all the books, yet still had no blinking idea of what was ahead of me. And summer takes everything you think you have learned since becoming a parent and turns it on its head again. I love my usual daily routine, a mix of motherhood, parenting, cooking, running, and reading, but in summer with Leli at home I couldn’t do most of that. I usually like to get up earlier than everybody else in the house, but after a week when we all shared the same room on holiday, the concept of my bed and your bed ceased to exist. Even if I’d been able to have the alarm on because a miracle had kept my daughter in her own bed, I wouldn’t have got up when it went off, because I’d been up six times in the night making that miracle happen.
So, summer became a task in managing my expectations vs reality. My main priority is always to make sure that my daughter is well cared for and looked after, but it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that I still have a to-do list and deadlines that need to be met. And as the first days passed in a stressful blur I began to come to some realisations. And what I found was that there were a few simple strategies that made our days that bit easier on both of us.
The first was having realistic expectations. Before the summer began, I had each day planned, filled with new activities. I thought the busier the better, but what I soon realised was that the days when I had nothing organised were always the easiest. And best. My daughter does not like being rushed about and nudged out of the door according to my time planning. Turns out, neither do I.
After coming to the understanding that my working day no longer existed in its usual form, the guilt that I wasn’t at my desk between the hours of 9 am and 3:30 pm began to fade. There was no way to achieve that with a little one at home. But on the days when she did sleep and I managed to get up early, I worked then, instead of doing what I’d normally do at 5:30 am. I also worked during nap time, and in the evening or the weekends when I had help around. But, what I didn’t do was cram work into every sleeping moment. That is a recipe for burnout, which I tried last year without success.
At the same time as scrapping the normal working day, I also decided to shred my to-do list. There are always more items to do in an average working day than there are hours to do them. And this is especially true when working from home during the summer. I chose only the most important tasks, or even one task for the whole day, and just focussed on that.
But perhaps more useful than any of the tips or tricks that I read about online before the summer began and implemented as summer progressed, was the decision to simply be kind to myself. I stopped stressing about whether she had watched half an hour or an hour of television. My summer holidays as a kid were all about television, and nobody thought it was weird, or that my mum was a bad parent. I stopped worrying about whether there were dried up plums on her dress, or whether she was in bed bang on time. I stopped fretting that potty training was taking too long, and decided that my expectations were the only things driving my motherhood anxiety in that department too. Because while societal expectations of what it means to be a good mother might be a heavy weight to carry, they are perhaps no heavier than those expectations we give ourselves.