Dear Carolyn: As a mother of three young kids holding a full-time job and with a husband who frequently works late evenings and some weekends, I feel my priorities change according to what is in front of me at the time, then I'm reconsidering my choices later.
How do I decide what's most important without feeling guilty or stressed out or tired all the time? How do I feel like I made the right choices and right balance, and be at peace with it?
— Full Time
Full Time: I don’t know that you can work full time and tag-team-raise three small children with a spouse you often don’t see without some fatigue and stress. It’s a lot to carry.
Child rearing is the perfect host environment for doubts, because the hardest work today is largely for results you’ll see only years from now. That leaves ample room to wonder whether you handled X or Y the right way.
Kids also, being people, will push back against even meticulous efforts to civilize them — in more colorful ways than you can imagine. Just deciding which lines to hold is a challenge, and you’re making those calculations on the fly, often alone and usually tired, and that’s before the work of actually holding those lines. Often before you literally go to work, or after a full day at work.
There probably isn’t much you can do about the physical and emotional chore list — except plug away as time works its incremental magic; outsource liberally, including age-appropriately to the kids; and behold the glory of “no.” But you can buy yourself significant relief through your reasoning and priorities.
This mental workload is one even an overextended parent can tackle in advance — with spouse, in this case — instead of pushing it off to the moment.
Give yourself a little break while you’re at it. Pick a time, arrange child care, go someplace pleasant, even if it’s a $6 date for coffee. Breathe. Then sift through recent experiences for clues on the battles to pick:
Which corners have you cut? Which did you later regret, and which were genius?
Where has inflexibility paid off?
Where have your orthodoxies caused more trouble than they’re worth?
What discoveries have you made that your spouse can use?
Where can better coordination reduce confusion and conflict? (Kids always find the gaps.)
Having read and absorbed the messages of the big picture, you can apply them in the moment as consistent priorities, even in moments of chaos and fatigue. This, in turn, will preempt a lot of guilt. If you decided while lucid and rested that Cereal Night is a harmless shortcut, then Cereal Night will lose its power to haunt you. Likewise, having decided that bedtime enforcement is a battle wisely fought, you’ll have the stamina of your convictions and be less tempted to cave.
As with any child-rearing tactics, you’re using them in a dynamic situation and your priorities will need updating as you go. But updating them every few months is nevertheless a welcome degree of stability compared with daily priorities bingo.
Best of all, it’s groundwork for self-forgiveness. You’ll still choose wrong under pressure sometimes, because everyone does, but planning ahead makes the next good choice clear(er). Try, oops, try again — exactly what we’re teaching them.