September of 2019 will be the first time in 23 years that I don’t spend the month frantically filling out school forms, filling the fridge with meal ready food and packing backpacks with folders/tablets and markers. As our youngest child starts her college journey 3 hours away, I now have a chance to reflect on how my husband and I managed to get thru those incredibly busy years, keep our sanity, enjoy our kids and remain best friends. Some memories are easier to enjoy than others, but both the good and the not so good times are part of the fabric that has kept us together.
Many of my patients ask me how many children I have and when they hear the size of our family the next question is inevitably how I can continue to work full-time. I joke that my workday is what keeps me sane, as staff and patients are interested in what I have to say and the paycheck each month helps to pay for the expenses of a large family. The truth is I love my job and my family and have learned how to make both work, albeit some days better than others. With more young women pursuing professional careers, I am hopeful that they are able to take some lessons from those of us who went before.
Unfortunately, I had no role models as none of the women in my family had paying jobs outside the home. I grew up on a farm in the 60’s and 70s, when the job of a wife was to provide all of the childcare/household duties as well as help out on the farm when needed. There were clear boundaries between women’s work and men’s work, with women crossing over into the male realm much more frequently than the reverse. My mother assumed that a physician career limited the possibility of a family and that I would quit my job if I decided to have children. Additionally, there were few female physician role models in the generation prior that could provide my generation with support. In retrospect, creating my own how-to manual had certain advantages as I had to figure out what worked for our family and wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.
My immense advantage in this endeavor was my husband. He also has a professional career, loves kids, is a great cook and can clean a bathroom. The distinct boundaries between husband and wife duties that were present when I was growing up is quite blurred in my own marriage and fluctuates daily. I can be seen mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway of snow while he is inside helping kids with homework and putting a meal together. If the homework is English or spelling, I am more likely to be involved and if the snow blower is in use, he is usually the one behind the handlebar. Thru experience, we have learned that a job done is not open to criticism. If the lines on the lawn from the mower are not straight, the lawn is still mowed. If the kitchen counters need an extra swipe to be shiny, the kitchen is still clean enough for eating. By consensus, we have agreed that there is not enough time in the day for the extras: a perfectly made bed with pillows artfully arranged, nightly baths for young kids and coordinated school outfits.
Growing up on a farm, much of my unscheduled time was spent outdoors making up my own fun. With my own three rambunctious boys, I was often pushing all of them outside to use up some of their energy, just as I was taught to do. Some days I questioned my sanity as it took longer to get everyone dressed in winter gear than the time spent outdoors. This parenting style was much different from what I saw among other families in my neighborhood. Parents preferred their children to have supervised play, arranged play dates with desired friends and spent their time at the park following their children around the play structures, making sure they didn’t take chances and get hurt. I “let” my children climb trees, dig in the mud/muck, build scary contraptions to ride in and walk one block to our neighborhood park to play on their own. I didn’t have a choice as they would have done all of those things and more as soon as my back was turned. This made my life easier as I was able to enjoy what they created for themselves and didn’t need to be concerned about the organization of scheduled activities.
As young adults, my kids have all pursued different passions at different times, never being afraid to fail the first 10 times. Studies have now shown that unstructured play time is critical for a child’s development and decreases future anxiety and depression, giving them permission to fail at the easy stuff so that they continue to persevere as adults when hit with adversity.
Five children can create a messy house and have a need for large meals. I didn’t have the time or the will to do all of that housework on my own. As young children they were put to work doing meal prep and as they got older were assigned to start the evening meal when they got home from school. Weekend mornings involved yard work and housework. There were always complaints about their friends not having chores and sometimes it took longer to get them to move in the right direction than if I had done it myself. But as they moved out of the house, I knew they could wash their own clothes, clean a bathroom, vacuum and cook a decent meal. They knew that I depended on them to make our household survive and how to negotiate with their siblings for a more desired chore.
This recent article about Maya children articulates what I witnessed when my youngest daughter arrived home from China at age 2. The first few months were a struggle for her as she adapted to new foods, a different language and a brand new family. There were few smiles until one day when she walked over to the bucket I was using to clean up the kitchen floor, grabbed the mop handle and started to scrub the kitchen floor. She had found something familiar. A mop in America works the same as a mop in China. Almost every day for the next few weeks she scrubbed the kitchen floor or helped cut and clean produce for meals. The tasks gave her a sense of contributing and linked her past to her future.
I had the hardest lesson to learn. The age of the working woman was buoyed by the slogan that you could have it all – a career, family and happy marriage. The reality is that you also have to sacrifice to make it all work. When I wasn’t at work, I was home with my family. My husband and I tried to squeeze in a few date nights a month and one vacation without kids a year, but finding someone to watch 5 children can be difficult. Me time was non-existent and time with girlfriends rare. Spending 12 years of my life beyond high school becoming a physician honed the concept of delayed gratification, making it easier to realize that there would a future time when I would be able to develop outside interests.
Now that the time has come to fully embrace those outside interests I am more than ready, albeit with a small tear in my eye. While I have lists of places to visit and new volunteer opportunities, I also miss the kids running thru the house, sitting in the kitchen with me as I cooked dinner and they did their homework, snuggling together at night as we read books and road trips. But it is even more delightful to interact with them as young adults – hearing their excitement and disappointments, discussing movies and current events. I wouldn’t change a thing about those crazy early years, except to worry less and enjoy more.