My kids are a very important part of our family, but they aren’t the only part.
I said no to the Wellie Waddle, but yes to the Messibat Siddur. No to the Burns Night Supper, but yes to the Daffodil Tea. My kids don’t have an unwieldy amount of school events—we live in the U.K., which appears to be much saner in this regard than the U.S.—but there are still a fair number of them. My attendance rate, I would guess, hovers around 60%. I certainly don’t drop everything and go simply because there is a sports game or concert or function on offer that involves one or more of my children.
It’s not a perfect science, how I decide. I try to assess each occasion on its own merits: its significance as a milestone, the effort that was put into it by the kid and, of course, what else is on the calendar. Many of the considerations are practical. I have four children, each with his or her own schedule, and I have a job, which is flexible yet a job nonetheless. In certain instances I say no because, as the laws of physics dictate, I can’t be in two places at the same time.
In other instances, however, I just say no. There might be a scheduling conflict that I haven’t moved mountains to resolve. There might be no scheduling conflict at all. My kids are a very important part of our family, but they aren’t the only part. They are wildly loved and supported, but that love and support doesn’t always come at the expense of their parents’ other responsibilities and desires. This is a reckoning that might sound selfish to some. I would describe it instead as “balanced.”
We are living in a climate of intensive parenting. There are positives here, for sure: Children are raised today with a deeply ingrained sense of their own worth. But there are also negatives. Parents are shredding themselves to bits, overstuffing their days, sliding their own sanities to the back burner, in order to be constant audiences of their children’s activities, constant cheerleaders of their children’s achievements. It’s almost gotten to the point where if mom or dad doesn’t see it, it’s like it never even happened.
The cycle of expectation can be broken, though. It’s been broken in my family. If your children don’t expect you to be at every event, to be witness to everything they lay their hands to, they won’t be disappointed when you aren’t. Or they won’t be crushingly disappointed, at least. The parent-child bond is not so brittle as the pressure we put on ourselves to be “involved” would suggest. Children are resilient little creatures and they don’t need our eyes on them, our attendance at every single school function, to know how profoundly they matter. Some of us might genuinely want to be present for each baseball game or nursery school toy-time coffee morning, and that’s wonderful. But only if it’s true.
For me, the truth is that I don’t want to go to all the things. It’s not that I’m wholly unsentimental or fail to derive great pleasure from seeing my kids on the stage or on the field or simply in the school environment. It’s that I am of the view that less is more. The same way I don’t save every piece of their artwork or schoolwork, I also don’t attend every event. They don’t all have the same value. Older kids are able to make this distinction, especially those who are encouraged to do so. My 10-year-old recently told me he didn’t mind it when I missed his Burns Night Supper; it had no personal significance to him. But he might mind it, he said, if I missed something else, something he was more invested in. This kind of prioritizing is a reality of life for those of us who accept we can’t, in fact, do it all. Consequently it is a mode of thinking I am trying to instill in my children themselves. The way to appreciate what really matters is first to be able to recognize it.
Part of the problem, I admit, is rooted in the cultural weather system of modern parenting, and, as such, is hard to combat at the individual level. The concern in not showing up for International Food Day is what? The drooping, stricken face of your unrepresented child as the rest of the parents march in en masse. When I was a kid, though, some parents would come to some things and other parents would come to other things and it wasn’t so obvious if one mom or dad wasn’t there. If we all attended school events more moderately, the absences wouldn’t be so stark.
My mom only came to some of my events. The idea that she would be at all of them, or most of them, wasn’t even on the table. When she did show up, I appreciated it all the more, because it made the thing what it was supposed to be in the first place: a special occasion. If it were a less than special occasion, a home track race for example, it was entirely possible that she wouldn’t even be watching me run. I have vivid memories of her sitting in the stands, head buried in the New York Times crossword puzzle. And that was fine. Sometimes a parent’s presence is enough on its own.
But just as presence doesn’t automatically signal interest, so too it isn’t a gauge of the extent to which a mom cares about her kid. However much the current zeitgeist of parenting might trick us into believing otherwise, less than 100% attendance does not mean less than 100% love.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder of Motherwell. When she is failing to attend her children’s school events, she keeps busy writing and editing essays on parenthood. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
This originally appeared on Motherwell. Republished here with permission.