Shortly after our first child was born, a work colleague, Paul, shared with me the story of how he’d once been asked by a journalist to sum up in one word what being a parent is like. His choice: relentless. Although he thought becoming a parent was one of most rewarding things he’d ever done, he also wanted to emphasize how uniquely different it is from some of life’s other offerings.
The point Paul was making is that when you become a parent, you’re signing up to a job where you’re working or on call 24×7, 365 days of the year. I regularly remind myself of Paul’s one-word answer and ask whether my wife and I are doing all we can to relieve the relentlessness.
Here are some of the things we’ve put in place over the years. I’m not by any means suggesting we’ve got this parenting thing down; we’re still finding our way. However, I do think they’ve helped in these early years.
Regular date night
Even before my conversation with Paul, we’d lined up a regular sitter for Tuesday nights. This served several purposes – it gives us something to look forward to, forces us to get out together and reminds us that before we became Mom and Dad, we were husband and wife. One bonus is that sitters like steady, predictable work, so our turnover is low.
Saturday daddy time
When our firstborn, Penelope, was just a few months old, I started taking her to a nearby café on Saturday mornings. It has a small play area out the back with books, toys and more. I wanted my wife to have some peace and quiet, and in addition, I thought it would be nice to have time for Penelope and myself. Before too long I’d formed a group with guys who had kids of a similar age that I jokingly named “Boys with babes”. I’d email them if I’d be at the café that weekend and on sunny days we’d often grab coffees before going to a local playground.
While it doesn’t relieve the relentlessness for me, it does let my wife sleep in, take an exercise class or grab a coffee with an adult. While I ended “Boys with babes” a couple of years ago, the tradition of Saturday morning with the kids continues and both get excited about the prospect of daddy time when they know Saturday is near.
Some of the books Jennifer got to help us in the early days, including “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” and “The Baby Whisperer”, had some counterintuitive advice about getting into a nighttime schedule. They recommended that Penelope she wasn’t falling asleep, rather than keep her up longer we should try moving her bedtime routine earlier. Not only did it work, but we ended up with her asleep by 6.30pm and waking at 7.30am. Of course, that meant we also benefited from having quality time together in the evening to catch up, hang out and be us again.
Now that we have two kids, schedules are different, but the early bedtime principle remains.
Monthly dinner exchange
A few years ago, a casual conversation with a work acquaintance got me thinking about a monthly dinner with three couples my wife and I knew. Each month one couple hosts the others and is responsible for all the courses and drinks. When we started out, we all had one child each, all born within about a year of each other.
The model has evolved over the years, primarily because we now have a total of nine children between us. Our indoor space doesn’t accommodate nine kids between the ages of two and six, but we’ve all got decent backyard space. Now we only host dinners during the summer and early fall months, where kids are welcome and can play outdoors. The rest of the year we get sitters and go out together at a restaurant, where talk about kids is usually brief and most of the time we discuss other things in life.
Several years ago, we proposed the idea of a babysitting swap to friends who lived nearby. We figured that one of us could go over to their place and watch their child while they went out, and they could return the favor in the coming weeks. We timed things so both our kids were fast asleep. That way 99% of the time babysitting was really just hanging out.
Whatever we were doing – sitting or going out – became something to look forward to. We were generally ambivalent about who went to watch their child. I’d often get some work done, then connect to their Wi-Fi and stream old seasons of mindless TV series like 24. Our friend Steve, on the other hand, would usually come over because he wanted to take advantage of our HBO subscription and catch up on Game of Thrones.
A couple of traditions from before kids have survived, including Valentine’s Day and Christmas dinner, and they each relieve the relentlessness in different ways. A local French bistrot was the first restaurant we celebrated Valentine’s Day at and we’ve been going there every year since. We start looking forward to it in January when I make the reservation and secure a sitter.
As for Christmas dinner, our goal is to be fuss-free and have someone else do the work, so we dine out. We’ve elected to make Thanksgiving our big feast of the year, so when December 25 comes around, we want to relax.
Like Paul, I’m finding parenting to be immensely rewarding and one of life’s most amazing experiences. But it’s definitely relentless and we need some relief from time to time. We find that all of the above helps.