On Becoming A Less Productive Parent

My daughter doesn’t care what I do for her; she cares that I am here, present and loving. She doesn’t value me for how many things I can get done in a day, but simply for who I am.

For a year before my partner and I had our first child, I worked from home. I had just sold my first book proposal and was finding it impossible to actually write the book while also maintaining my nonprofit job; my partner, meanwhile, had a solid career with benefits. We decided the time was right for me to make the transition into full-time freelance writing. A major factor of our calculation: We were hoping to be parents soon—in fact, we were a year into trying to conceive. If and when we had a baby, we decided, I would be able to work from home and also be the primary caregiver for our child. With my useless degree, there’s frankly not a lot of outside-the-home work I could do that would pay more than daycare would cost.

I loved being a freelancer. I spent the morning working out, running errands, and cleaning the house so that my afternoons were distraction-free time for writing, pitching, and editing. I made lengthy to-do lists every morning, usually overly-ambitious ones I would never complete within the day, but the more items I checked off, the more accomplished I felt. Working for myself didn’t mean I’d escaped from the productivity worship that pervades our culture; it only meant I’d internalized it. Instead of measuring my self-worth by my paycheck, I measured it by how many tasks I could get done in a day.

Abstractly, I knew that when our baby was born, I’d have to adjust my expectations of myself—there was no way I could add “take care of an infant” to my daily list without knocking off a few things to make room. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the reality of how much my pace would need to slow down to allow myself to become a parent.

My first few weeks of work-from-home parenting were exhausting, partly because my daughter loathes taking a bottle, but mostly because I was still bringing my pre-baby mentality to the table. I intended to spend hours cleaning, pitching, and writing. Instead, I was lucky to get one essay finished in a week, and clean laundry languished in the basket for days before I got around to folding it. My daughter wasn’t just background noise while I went on with my life as before. She needed—demanded—my attention. I had always intended to be a hands-on parent; I just hadn’t quite realized that would mean my hands were busy reading board books, acting out scenes with stuffed animals, and making snacks, instead of sweeping the kitchen and drafting a new book proposal.

For a while, my self-esteem tanked. I’d spent a year telling myself that, if there were lots of x’s on my to-do list by the end of the day, I was doing a good job, even if I wasn’t bringing in a lot of money. Suddenly there were days I didn’t even finish writing the list, much less check off anything on it. I had a hard time staying present with my daughter because I kept thinking about things I could or should be doing. At the end of the day, frustrated and feeling like a failure, I had no energy to write or make dinner or chat with my partner; all I wanted to do was watch TV and zone out so I wouldn’t have to think about how I was falling short of my expectations.

But that was the thing: They were my expectations, and only mine. My partner wasn’t demanding a sparkling kitchen. My editors weren’t haranguing me for more pitches. Everything that was genuinely crucial was getting done; I was the only one who insisted that every minute of my day needed to be filled with accomplishments. I was the one who felt that I was getting away with something by contributing less to our family financially, so I needed to make up for it by keeping myself busy.

It all came back, as it so often does, to capitalism—to the destructive idea that your value as a person is the value you generate for others.

Valuable: a work-from-home mom who cranks out a dozen pieces of writing a week, makes steady progress on her novel, runs errands, and keeps the house in company-ready condition.

Not valuable: me, a woman who’s gone a week without writing anything that will bring in a paycheck, who hasn’t vacuumed in so long she’s not totally sure where the vacuum cleaner is.

Of course this is also tied to the devaluing of traditionally feminized labor such as child care. Being with a baby—feeding her, playing with her, talking and singing and reading to her all day—is physically and emotionally tiring. It’s hard work, but we don’t see it as an accomplishment because there’s no economic value attached to it.

But the best thing I ever did for my daughter or myself was to write a new to-do list, one that said nothing but “Be present.” Be with her. Crawl around on the floor with her. Eat the apple chips that fell behind the table with her—OK, no, don’t do that, take those away and throw them out. But you get the idea.

Unlike most other things I’ve tried to do in my life, parenting is not a series of smaller tasks adding up to a bigger accomplishment—writing a book one page at a time, teaching a class lesson by lesson. It’s an ongoing process, not a checklist. It requires a fundamental rethinking of how I value my time and myself. Because ultimately, being her mother isn’t something I do. It’s not a task. It’s a way of approaching my life. My daughter doesn’t care what I do for her; she cares that I am here, present and loving. She doesn’t value me for how many things I can get done in a day, but simply for who I am. It’s time that I learned how to do the same.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).

Other Links: