The Myth of Free Time

In the fall, all four of my children will be in school, albeit not all full-time (my youngest will be in a three-day preschool program). Whenever this comes up in conversation, the enviable response is, “What will you do with all of your free time?”
Ah, free time—that mythical land to which every mother longs to go. As someone who currently works part-time from home, I rarely have free time now, and I don’t anticipate that changing once the children are in school.
I think the bigger question is what does this say about the current view of mothering. My mother stayed at home, but her time wasn’t consumed by doing for—or entertaining—me. Sure, household chores ate up some time, but once we were older than three, time spent in childcare dropped considerably for women of my mother’s generation.
That kind of mothering has fallen out of favor, and with it the rise of no time, free or otherwise. I am grateful for my mother’s example, for it gives me the fortitude to follow in her footsteps. Direct care of my children has lessened as they age; correspondingly, time I spend taking care of the household has also dropped as the children have picked up more of the cleaning chores.
In turn, that has allowed me to pick up some of the things that I put on hold when the children first arrived: reading, writing, knitting and sewing, for example.
While I’m looking forward to a quieter house next fall, I won’t have to worry about how to fill my suddenly “free time” since my time has always been mine to fill. I’ll take the 24 hours given to us each day and try to use it wisely—just like I do now.

Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired@Home, a guide to unlocking women’s work-from-home potential now available on Kindle. Her stories have appeared in previous Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Sarah lives in Virginia with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com, where she blogs about working from home.

Merry-Go-Round: Old Fashioned Fun

With March proving to be delightful in the weather department, we’ve been visiting playgrounds recently. On one visit, for nearly the entire half hour or so we were there, my three oldest children played on one piece of equipment: the merry-go-round. Laughter, squeals of pretend terror, sheer joy on the faces of the children hanging on for dear life as other kids ran as fast as they could in the grooved circle—what could be a better picture of childhood?
Nearly every non-preschooler who came to the playground made a beeline directly for the merry-go-round. I sat on a nearby bench and watched the interplay between the kids, and was heartened to see everyone getting along. Chants of “Push us, push us,” were answered by someone leaping off and racing around. When my youngest son (age 3) got on and then decided he wanted off shortly after the rotations began, a kid yelled, “Stop, someone wants to get off,” and they slowed to allow my son to slid off.
What other piece of equipment can teach children how to get along with one another better than a merry-go-round? There’s so many life lessons to be learned while spinning until you’re dizzy.
But we adults have over-reacted to the merry-go-round’s potential harm by suing playground equipment manufacturers, and cities and schools that had parks with merry-go-rounds installed. Sure some kids have gotten hurt on merry-go-rounds, but what I find more disturbing is our increasing desire to wrap our children in cotton wool to avoid any booboos or skinned knees (hence the tendency to make them wear knee and elbow pads while bike riding or rollerblading).
No one wants our children to get hurt psychically, and we should put a stop to obviously dangerous things. On the other hand, giving children the freedom to spread their wings and fly around the world on a merry-go-round can be wonderful to their own development.
Let them see the world outside is to be explored and conquered, not feared and avoided. Let them experience the joys and pains of mastering things like bike riding and monkey bars. Let them view the world from a different perspective by climbing trees or hanging upside from the swing set.
Sure, you might have to stock up on band-aids and kiss a few more hurts, but if you can resist the urge to place your children inside a bubble, you might just find out that they are tougher than you think. Hearing your children describe their outdoor adventures can be a priceless experience in itself.
So keep the cotton wool safely tucked away, and go find a park with a merry-go-round, but I’d avoid jumping on board unless you have a stomach of iron. Some things are better left to the kids.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired@Home, a guide to unlocking women’s work-from-home potential now available on Kindle. Her stories have appeared in previous Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Sarah lives in Virginia with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com, where she blogs about working from home.

Good Intentions

During a recent visit with my parents, we all went out to our favorite pizza buffet restaurant, and our four children asked to sit at their own table. We picked a table right beside ours and my husband and I sat with our backs to our children, in order to keep an eye on them.
Near the end of the meal, a woman stopped by our table, obviously upset, to say that, “Someone should tell those girls that it’s not polite to point, make faces and laugh at people.” Somewhat taken aback, I stammered out an apology and then turned to ask the girls what had happened.
The girls in question—ages 9 and 7—vehemently denied having done such a thing, the older one beginning to cry at the accusations. Upon further questioning, it came out that the pair had been engaged in their own storytelling that involved making funny faces and gesturing to the opposite wall, which would have meant those sitting in their path could have misconstrued the situation. Added to their explanation was the fact that we have never seen them behave in such a way toward anyone, we were inclined to believe them. The girls themselves were suitably chastised by the encounter.
But it presented an excellent opportunity to discuss our intentions and how those can be mistaken by others as not good. Their making faces and pointing in public had been misinterpreted by someone as directed at them—and it didn’t paint a flattering picture of the girls’ behavior or character.
We also talked about how the woman must have felt to think they were making fun of her appearance, and how devastated the girls would have felt had they seen someone doing similar things ostensibly about them. Too many times, we forget to talk to our children about trying to avoid the “appearance of evil” in their actions, especially in public or school. While some people will find fault in everything, many times situations like the one discussed in this post could have been avoided if we had curbed our own actions.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but a vital one that good intentions are not the only thing we need to keep in mind—that we need to have a thought for our fellow man and how our actions might impact him.

The Good Mother

I’m a terrible mother.
Before you call social services and report me, no, I don’t beat or starve my children, but there are days when I fall way short of today’s definition of a good mother. I don’t spend a lot of time with my children (and often think that’s okay). I don’t correct their homework (and have no intention of doing so). At times, I get annoyed when they interrupt me. I sometimes yell at them when they frustrate me (like spilling milk on the table I just cleaned).
How many times have I not paid attention to what a child was saying because my attention was on my email? How many times do I pack my day with too much work and end up too tired to play a game or read a story to them before bed?
We as mothers and women have a tendency to set the bar so high, it’s nigh on impossible to reach. We tell ourselves that if we don’t bake the cookies from scratch, or don’t pay close enough attention to the babblings of the 2-year-old, or don’t fill-in-the-blank, our children will not be happy, healthy, or have a good life.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But how many of us have had similar thoughts dance through our minds, along with the accompanying guilt at not being a good enough mother? I sure have, even though I try very hard not to.
Then there’s the inevitable comparisons with other mothers. Even when we’re not consciously thinking about how other women parent, it can seep into our minds in the blink of an eye.
Here’s an example of what I mean: When my oldest was a toddler, we went to the park on one of the first warm spring days. She had on a short-sleeved shirt probably for the first time that year. As we walked to the playground, I looked around at the other mothers who were arriving with their children. Nearly every one of them had whipped out a tube of sunscreen and was slathering their child’s face and arms with the stuff. My daughter looked at me and asked if she needed sunscreen. I told her no and to go play, but in that moment, I felt like a bad mother, one who sends her defenseless child out into the sunny world with no sunscreen.
Other times this feeling has cropped up for me includes being the mom without the first aid kit at the playground and another mom has to lend you a Band-aid to bandage your child’s bloody knee. Or giving my kids a non-organic, not-too-healthy snack when other moms have artfully arranged carrot sticks and hummus.
If we fall into this mindset that we are not good enough mothers, that our parenting styles and family life is not up to par with the rest of the world—and as a result our children will not be able to fulfill their great destinies— then we will miss out on a lot of the joys of childhood.
We also will miss out on the laughter and the pain, the joys and the sorrows, the average grades and the missed goals. And those lessons learned from not being perfect, from seeing how we as mothers handle life’s disappointments, and from enjoying life to its fullest whatever our circumstances, are priceless.
It’s not being the perfect mother that our children will love us for—it’s being the best mother we can be for them. That won’t look good some days, but if we turn our backs on measuring ourselves to an impossible standard, we can have more good days than bad.
It took me several years to come to terms that I wasn’t a great mother by certain standards. And there are times when I slip and start to obsess about how I’m not a good mother. But most of the time, I aim to be a good enough mother, and so far, it’s been a good one for my four children.

Dating When Married

Remember those heady days of early dating with your now-husband? The dinners, movies and outings that just the two of you went on as you discussed everything from favorite bands to politics to religious beliefs. How many times in the past year have you been on a date with your husband?

I do realize that there are seasons of life when it becomes necesssary to hunker down and stay in, such as a newborn baby in the house, sickness (let’s not talk about the chicken pox quaratine in our house earlier this year!), or the like. But I sometimes think we have a funny way of letting life overtake our marriages, too, and before we know it, we haven’t been on a date with our husbands for way too long.

Finding the time for just the two of you–and I’m not sure falling asleep in front of a DVD in the family room really counts–is as essential to your family as putting food on the table. I’m a firm believer that a happy marriage is the best thing we can give our children, that the relationship between husband and wife is even more important than the parent-child one.

To that end, dating your husband should be a top priority, and finding reliable babysitters is paramount. If you don’t have any regular babysitters, check with the teens in your church to see if they babysit. Try the local MOPS or other playgroups for leads, and ask other neighborhood moms at the bus stop or park. Start a babysitting co-op with friends.

Once you have a pool of babysitters, go put some dates on the calendar. Spend a few hours one afternoon making a list of things you could do together–them pencil those ideas in every month or so. Your ideas could be expensive, such a dinner at a fancy restaurant for your anniversary, or free, such as a summer concert at an outdoor mall.

I’ve tried to be diligant about doing this every few months, because our calendar will fill up with things to do, but not necessarily dates with my spouse. This summer, we will go out to dinner with friends; see a movie together, not separately; get away to celebrate our anniversary at a B&B (my parents will help out with childcare for this one); see a musical play; and hear a band at an outdoor venue.

Now that you’re jealous of my good fortune, go make your own plans and enjoy reconnecting with your spouse in a new way.

Toddler TV Time

Another new study was released this month decrying the side effects of too much television on toddlers. According to an article in the May issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (a JAMA/Archives journal), the side effects of too much screen time may not be evident until the child enters grade school.

Children who watch more TV at 29 months old (2½) seem to exhibit more problems in school and poorer health behaviors when they enter fourth grade.

A study of more than 1300 kids around 29 months old found that each additional hour of TV in early childhood corresponded with a 7 percent unit drop in classroom engagement, a 6 percent decline in math achievement and a whopping 13 percent decrease in weekend physical activity.

It gets even scarier: Each additional TV hour in early childhood is linked to a 9 percent higher score for soda consumption and a 10 percent higher score for snack consumption. In other words, watching TV as a 2 year old contributes to fatter kids.

“The long-term risks associated with higher levels of early exposure may chart developmental pathways toward unhealthy dispositions in adolescence,” the study’s authors wrote.

This research, coupled with previous studies, shows that television programs on a regular basis are not good for toddlers and preschoolers. In my house, the TV is rarely on during the day and only at night when the children are all in bed. Yes, sometimes I do long to pop in a video because the kids are driving me crazy, but I curb that tendency and instead kick them outside for some playtime. With more and more evidence stacking up that TV time is not good for the health and well-being of children, especially young children, I think it’s time we stop our love affair with the boob tube and start realizing the very real dangers even “educational” programming can do to our kids.

Pressing On

Isn’t modern technology wonderful–until it isn’t? We had Internet connection issues that dragged on for more than a week before resolution. I’m still tired from spending literally hours on the phone with tech support. Whew.

But I’m back up and running just in time to jump right in and try my hand at writing a novel in a month. November is National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org), where you can win a “prize” by banging out a 50,000-word book in 30 days. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality, granted, but there’s something to be said for just getting it done.

Worrying too much about the craft or quality of something can become a hindrance if it stops you from actually getting the project done. Sometimes, everyone suffers from “writer’s block”–even if you’re not a writer. Whatever keeps you from starting that project or task or whatever because you don’t have all your ducks in a row can be a block.

As a writer, I learned early on just to start writing, whether or not I had a lede or intro to my piece or not. Often, my articles start after the first few paragraphs, jumping to the meat of the story. Sometimes, my conclusions wait until the rest of the article is complete.

It will be interesting to not worry about the grammar or the content when tackling this project. I’m looking forward to seeing how writing 50,000 words in a month will jumpstart my creative juices again–and hopefully, I’ll have something worth revisiting with my editor’s pen.

Until next time,

Sarah