kid primary

Maybe this time I can start to wrap some (more?) words around this strand I keep tugging at.

Yesterday I ran across this article:

which includes:

Some of the self-esteem dip found among mothers of young children is an inevitable byproduct of taking on something as demanding, and life-altering, as having a child. It would be strange to not harbor a few self-doubts when taking on such a daunting task while simultaneously stopping doing much of whatever it is made you feel like you.

…which, speaking as someone who pushes back at gender essentialism, seems like it would be true of whichever parent happens to be “simultaneously stopping” (</rant>, thank you!)…

Anyway-! It pulled to front of mind again my years of what I may start calling my multi-layered life. As it does as I watch my friend C, still elbow-deep in the parent-artist slurry. When I hear a writer-friend lament how she feels unable to write… with a three-year-old and a hungry-brained nine-year-old swirling around her hips all summer. As I listen between the lines to one of my new Glen friends, voicing the tugs among his professional life, his art-life, and raw time with his softball-loving daughter.

And how his daughter is winning the time tug-of-attention. And how he’s okay with that… mostly… . Or it’s that he is choosing with his eyes wide open, knowing each cost and picking the choice he values most highly. Because we only have one attention to spend, no matter how many things we’d like to spend it on.


Perhaps that’s the bitter seed at the heart of the peach. When one opts to be kid-primary, in whatever constellation of values and circumstance coincide to make it so, one signs on for a contingent lifestyle. Which shoots most planning in the head.

When I waved my hand to take the kid-primary shift in my household, I understood what I was signing up for—as much as one can in advance of anything. I had always envisioned an at-home parent for our girls’ middle school years; my brief time teaching middle-schoolers confirmed for me that the simplest way to encourage them in wise behavior was to be within eye- or ear-shot. I chose work-for-hire that flowed around their routine as well as unexpected needs. I tried to keep my mind and heart fed, to keep my oxygen flowing in order to keep theirs going, too (to riff on the airline metaphor).

What I didn’t bank on was the disconnect between the practices within personal effectiveness coaching and the realities of my contingent lifestyle.

Every columnist, every book, every toolkit I found to help me chase my elusive artist’s life implied that any difficulty I had was a lack of personal management. Which itself implied a lack of will. So I’d knuckle myself down. I’d draft more plans, and sketch more mind-maps. I would block out time. I would scribble things on large sheets of paper, on mirrors, on attractive grids of post-it notes.

And underneath it all, a thermocline of resentment deepened. I suspected something was off, but I couldn’t articulate what. I became increasingly convinced it was something buried in the toolkits and the advice, but what?

An assumption about how my days worked, that’s what. It’s taken me a whole bunch of time to peel back the layers and see that assumption.

Productivity advice presumes you control your time. Or that you have pockets of time you control. And in my work-for-a-business life that was true. I had an agreed at-work time, and an agreed leave-work time, and the space between was mine to deploy. Others handled the high-flux minutia of my kids’ lives; I handed over that responsibility at drop-off and resumed it at pick-up.

When I signed on for kid-primary, I changed to contingency—and lost my ability to sustain a through-line.

Even in seasons where my creative energy wasn’t consumed by high-stakes parenting, it remained difficult to hang onto a project from one end to the other. The focus cost of picking up and putting down ate into whatever time I found… and that cost grows as the time between one putting down and the next picking up lengthens. It got easier not to continue. To again start something new, but never finish. Or to play small, so the work all fit within one slot.

Emptying my nest has removed the contingency from my days. My through-line is back, just like that.


There is a part of me that wants to write the personal productivity book for the kid-primary. If only to say: I see you. You’re not crazy; the frustration you feel is true—and built into the system. Or season. (I’d have to write the book to figure out that part-!) I’d like to wave a flag and say: CONTINGENCY is the word you’re missing. Build your idea of what you’re doing assuming it’s all contingent. So you can drop frustration faster. And choose to celebrate sooner—because in a contingent life, any motion on your “own stuff” is something worth smiling about.

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