Thursday, 14 August 2014

Discipline is freedom

It's a strange phenomenon, but I suspect it is fairly common and I suffer from it dreadfully. It really needs a name. It's the inability to adjust when you are hurtled from long phases of intensive parenting in to a period of (supposedly) blissful quiet. Many of us get it, and I know I am lucky to; it might be a few hours in the morning while the kids are at kindy, daytime naps or short evenings when the kids are asleep and you are not quite, an afternoon alone thanks to the grandparents, a quiet weekend day when Dad takes over, or many long days when the kids start school. Whatever it is, you are shot out like a cannonball from one world in to the other.

I find it very hard to adjust. I'm not a naturally relaxed person and I have plenty of extra struggles to exacerbate that. I find the lack of head space with kids around quite difficult to manage. And when I do get time to myself I really want to make the most of it, but gosh it is hard sometimes.

I read a really helpful post when I was in the midst of this struggle recently. We'd gone from tonsils-out to chicken pox to holidays and I had very little time to myself. At the end of many weeks the kids started spending more time with their grandparents and then got back to kindy. I sort of had to practice what to do with the time I had. I wanted to roll my sleeves up and just rip in to the job of being on my own, but I felt paralysed - as so often I do. Kate Baer had just the phrase I needed: too tightly wound.

In a post called When you are too tightly wound, Kate writes this, and I totally get it. I'm so glad someone else has put it in to words when I'm there. And that I'm not a weirdo:

It happens every night. Twelve hours of parenting has passed, the kids are finally in bed, and I feel the weight of it all on my chest.
Austin will suggest we go to bed. We need more rest! But I can not go to bed. I am too tightly wound.
Anyone who has parented a human for more than five minutes has felt the coils of the day wrapping around their insides, making the chest tight and the stomach hungry for nachos. By 9pm, I have no words left. I just want to sit in the dark, watch Michael Scott, and not have to think any intelligent thoughts.

I really like identifying what's not working in my life and trying to resolve it. I can't do it on a big scale, but I can do it on a smaller scale, and that counts. Having really battled with feeling so tightly wound that I'm paralysed, and now helpfully having a name for it, I really wanted to fix the problem.

I have found over recent years that I have loads to do, but only some of it is critically important. When I have a bit of spare time I could do some cleaning or organise dinner early or play around with some bloggy/websitey dreams or sort out my photos or find homes for things that have just been unpacked or tidy the car (ugh) or dig out the sewing machine... the list goes on forever. Heck, I could even get out of the house.

When working in a job years ago that was busy and broad and flexible I learnt to not only write lists of the jobs I had to do, but when to do them. It meant that instead of thinking about everything all day and flitting around inefficiently, I could focus hard on my 10am job, knowing that I didn't need to worry about the 2pm job, because I would do it at 2pm. So I have tackled my home life in the same way, and pulled out the big guns: I bought a whiteboard.

Each day has a few tasks assigned to it, and written up on the board. It's pretty simple and obvious really. There's the usual housework/cleaning jobs. And I've added a few extras like "kitchen bench" - with the assumption that the business areas of my kitchen are likely to need a tidy up often, and if they're getting out of control at least I know they will get attention once a week. I wrote "washing" on a Saturday, terribly anxious that everyone understands I do washing more than once a week, but least on a Saturday I can take stock of where I'm at, think of anything that has been missed, check for items languishing in the hot cupboard etc. I've also added in a few jobs that I'd like to get done at the computer - things I'm working on that have not quite come to fruition because I can't get my act together, the dreaded job of sorting my photos on Picasa, and a day to check over my bills and budget.

I love it. I love knowing all of these things will get time and attention, and that I don't have to think about all of them all the time. I like being told what to do. "Well it says on the whiteboard that I have to do it, so I had better do it." I actually really, really like getting things done, I just seem to need to be freed up to do them. And to be made to do them! When I'm too tightly wound I don't have to think, I can just follow the rules.

I actually missed the first two days of whiteboard this week, because Monday was the first day of school and the rest of my life (and I had assigned too many tasks to one day, so I'll have a re-shuffle), and I missed Tuesday because I had three tradesmen in the house and was a little thrown. So I've let them go for now, and today I just focused on today's tasks. One of them was the kitchen bench, and once I'd tidied the essential area (you know the one, with random toys, scraps of paper, pens, kids medicine that is not being used anymore...) I was on a roll and tidied the whole bench to way above and beyond the call of duty. Hooray! I do rely a little too much on waiting until I'm on a roll, but it's effective. Thanks whiteboard.

I wonder if you've noticed the title of this post. I wonder if it's true for you. I've learnt the hard way that total freedom can leave me lost and aimless, but a little sensible discipline gives me focus and results. Good results, not boring results. I can keep my head and my house tidy, I can live more in the moment, I can do the things I have to do and the things I love to do. And hopefully even enjoy them and do them well.

My beautiful kitchen bench. If it doesn't last, no problem, my whiteboard says I'll be fixing it again next week.


  1. Love it! And love the photo caption :)

    Well done, you!

  2. So, applying this housework discipline theory, I could simply leave my assigned jobs to the following week every week. I am liking this plan already.

  3. Hey Angela,

    Bekah sent me this link because we have been discussing my inability to relax and know what to do when I get "down time". Being "tightly wound" definitely describes me! I have the added bonus issue of not really knowing what I enjoy doing. I've been a stay at home parent for a solid 10 years now. I have no hobbies to speak of. When I get time to myself I get panicked that I won't get the most out of it, so I end up tidying or eating junk food, or both! These things are by default, I have not learn alternatives. I have not learned yet to "unwind".

    So... I tidy. The problem with tidying is you can always do more! I get to the end of the day and feel grumpy that all I have done is house work and tomorrow it will be just as messy, all over again. The thing is, as a parent, there is always stuff to get done, but that stuff does not change much, or have a definite finish point. I do believe that the job I do is worthwhile in the long run, but in the short term sometimes I have an existential crisis about the simplest of things like washing.... It just keeps on cycling around! Maybe I should give up hygiene?

    Although in the long term parenting is in some ways linear (baby is born, it grows up, becomes an independent participant in the world), on the day to do day level it feels much more like a circle! It's the circularness that makes it so hard to feel satisfied. Dishes in dishwasher dishes out, food in child, poos come out, food in again etc, washing in washing out, washing on, washing in washing out etc etc. You know how it goes! I fear that my problem is bigger even than the whiteboard could solve and it sounds like a brilliant idea! Maybe I should give up western theories of progress and become a Hindu and then I won't need to spend money on a white board.

    Thanks Angela, from one suburb to another, I feel your solidarity.

    Hannah DC

  4. Yes. YES! I have always struggled with the challenge of not seeing results, or completing anything, even with milestones along the way. I have even wildly considered taking up sewing, just so I can start and finish a project (but I fear finishing is not guaranteed!).

    I find the whiteboard good as it helps to focus me, and gives me permission to leave some things to another day. This relaxes my mind, and if I'm lucky gives me a little me-time. Right now all I can think of to do with that is sit in the sun with a drink and/or a good book. But I have really been aware how good it is for my soul just to gaze out on the lawn and watch the birds playing in the sun. Though I do hope for something with more substance one day (writing a blog perhaps?). I do schedule in a few things that I want to do on my whiteboard too - perhaps we should schedule in a compulsory weekly walk along the beach or watching of the sunset (sorry kids, no dinner tonight, the sun's going down).

    If Hindu children are tidy that sounds like a good idea.

    Lovely to hear from you, even through the struggles. Much love to you Mrs DC.

  5. I too suffer from being tightly wound. Some days I have a "to do" list that gets done, some days the list isn't written and ineffciency results. Although my biggest issue is not what to do with those "me time" moments, but trying to figure out what I would enjoy doing. I'm hyper-aware that this stage of being a stay-at-home mum wont last. One day too soon, I'm not going to be needed. So I'd like to be building my own self independence as my child gains theirs.

    1. Yes, I have always known this stage will come (though for the moment I still feel very busy) and have been determined that it won't sneak up and catch me by surprise. I haven't found any answers yet, but I hope both you and I do.
      Of course, you will always needed! But perhaps there will be some time in between.

  6. Oh, I both love and need a "whiteboard". Whether that is an actual whiteboard, or just a list, I find I feel much calmer and more organised if I have it written down. I'm so glad it is working for you and giving you a little more relief from the never ending spiral of life's issues. Who knows, you may well find yourself colour coding your whiteboard next! ;)

    1. Ha ha - feel free to submit a photo of any whiteboard works-of-art!

  7. This struck a chord when I read it when it was first posted, and even more so re-reading it today on the first day of a new school year... Marcus went back today, and Isabelle goes back to pre-school on Monday, after which I will have around 2-2.5 hours every week day on my own. I have approximately a million things to do - some I need to do, others I'd just like to do - and I can already feel myself tensing in anticipation of free-falling into wild-eyed stagnation. I found last September ridiculously difficult (the first year of school and pre-school respectively) and went spiralling into a massive pit of self-doubt and am anxious not to repeat that experience.
    I have lists (I always have lists!) but I think I need to make them more precise, and - thanks for the suggestion - more timetable-esque.
    (Incidentally, one thing I will be trying to timetable in at least once a fortnight is to sit down with a book and a large mug of coffee in my empty house, whatever the state of it!)

    1. How about once a week for that book and coffee!

    2. "Tensing in anticipation of free-falling into wild-eyed stagnation." What a stunning quote, and while I don't wish it on you, it is somehow comforting to know others feel this. Let's keep working together to keep away from the fall. Timetabling definitely helps, and I'm with T, a scheduled book and coffee should def be more than once a fortnight. Good luck!