I love to-do lists. I love New Year’s and even birthdays as a time to make resolutions for the year ahead. I always loved getting a crisp new school planner at the start of each school year. All the to-do and list-making and project-coordinating apps? I’ve tried ‘em. I have Moleskines filled with lists of 5-year plans, books to read, and what I absolutely positively must get done tomorrow. I even tried (briefly) to bullet journal.
Once I was pregnant with my daughter, such list-making helped to carry me through a number of new firsts – researching baby gear and putting together a detailed baby shower registry, figuring out what birth prep and baby care classes I wanted to take, and ensuring I wouldn’t forget hospital bag necessities. All of which helped me feel as prepared as one possibly can before actually having a baby (which, to be clear, is merely relatively prepared).
As a recovering perfectionist, a person who suffers from anxiety, and someone who is equal parts messy creative and type A personality, checking off to-dos has always been soothing – a clear way to see what I’ve accomplished each day, a thing that’s neat and tidy. But being a parent changed all that.
…checking off to-dos has always been soothing – a clear way to see what I’ve accomplished each day, a thing that’s neat and tidy. But being a parent changed all that.
In some ways, being a parent changed my whole sense of time. The weeks and years move quickly. (How is my daughter almost three and a half? How is my son already more than a year old?) But never before have the days felt so long. Time is measured in naps and nursing sessions, meals and diaper changes, baths and books, songs and snuggles and ritual rhymes about stars and wishes before sleep. I remember when my daughter was a few months old I had the realization that, gosh, if I had known – like, really known – that there were so many hours in the day before having kids, well then I would definitely be running the world by now. Despite what Beyonce sings – “Who run the world? Girls!” – since having children, that line of thinking feels kind of exhausting. While I would like to run the world, I’d also like to take a nap.
Really, being a parent has given me a different sense of what running the world and being productive might look like for me, right now. And a different sense of what I can honestly accomplish in a day. Most days, I just want to make it to my kids’ bedtime without feeling like I’m drowning, slooowly chip away at maaaybe making the world a better place one piece of writing and baby snuggle at a time, and possibly do a load of laundry before collapsing into bed.
But social media doesn’t make this easy. It doesn’t help any of us to compare ourselves to sun-filtered Instagram personalities who are so #productive that they renovate their homes top to bottom while pregnant, and rise before their babies wake up for yoga and meditation, and launch their own lifestyle brands while chasing toddlers. And plenty of trying-to-sell-themselves-as-a-product influencers tell us that to be more #productive we should wake up earlier, leave work later, banish unproductive thoughts, follow a five-(or ten-or twenty-) step checklist if we’re lacking motivation or inspiration or concentration, #optimize everything (including ourselves), or hire any number of coaches to become #better #faster #stronger. But you can’t hack your postpartum recovery or a child’s sleep regression or any other normal parts of parenting that are just hard.
But you can’t hack your postpartum recovery or a child’s sleep regression or any other normal parts of parenting that are just hard.
And so I think I’ve finally begun to realize something my mother knew well. Which is that there are really only so many hours in a day. I think often of a framed verse taken from “Song for a Fifth Child” by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton that hung in my parents’ room – just over my mother’s sewing machine and mending pile and near the rocking chair where she nursed and rocked me and my three siblings to sleep:
Cleaning and scrubbing can wait ’til tomorrow
For babies grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow
So quiet down, cobwebs, dust, go to sleep
I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep
My babies won’t always be little. They won’t always need to be rocked, or snuggled, or tucked in to bed. And when it comes to tasks both domestic and work-related – there will always be more to do. More laundry to be folded, more dishes to be washed, more emails to be answered (or, let’s be honest, deleted unread). So now I try to cut myself a lot of slack, focus on what’s most important – see to the laundry and dishes and meals that keep our household running, care for my children, let my daughter play in her bubble bath for a little longer, make silly faces with my son for a few more minutes, read one (or two, or three) more book(s) to them both at bedtime – and try not to stress about what’s left undone.
These days, I’ve finally let up on what was previously an always growing, essentially endless to-do list of all of the things – broad stroke to granular, important to irrelevant – that I felt like I needed to accomplish. But ask me if I’ve yet painted our upstairs hallway, speckled with chipped paint spots that I’ve been staring at since we first moved into our home three years ago, back when my husband and I were thoroughly convinced we’d have time for home renovations once we were new parents. Ask me if I’ve done any mending since my daughter’s been born, despite adding to the pile beside my own sewing machine. Ask me if I’ve yet put together my 9-month-old son’s changing table and dresser. Reader, the answer is a resounding NO.* And yet these items at one time lived on my to-do list for between three years(!) to (at least) nine months.
Imagine what you could take off your own to-do list. Really, incredibly, that’s just a thing you can do.
So one day, I just took these items off the list. I decided that three years was long enough. And just like that… Poof! Gone! Sometimes the reminders of tasks still undone – the chipping paint or the pile of clothes or the enormous furniture box – do bother me. But for the most part, I don’t beat myself up when I can’t accomplish everything I’d like to. If I let these things be the marker of the success of my days, I would feel like a failure constantly. Imagine what you could take off your own to-do list. Really, incredibly, that’s just a thing you can do.
And now that I’ve learned to lay off the hard-core all #productivity all the time sort of mindset, I’m kinder to myself too. Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from perfect, I’m often jealous of those Instagrammers, and I wish my to-do list was even shorter. But I don’t sell myself short anymore. Parents are some of the most productive people around because we have to be, even if it might not look social media friendly. (I don’t think poopy diapers are really trending right now.) I often reflect on all I’ve accomplished each day – heck, sometimes just all I’ve accomplished before 10 a.m. – and when I do, I feel like I am running the world, or at least my little corner of it. Just think about all that you accomplished before 10 a.m. today. We should all recognize and celebrate these very real, very worthy successes.
Just think about all that you accomplished before 10 a.m. today. We should all recognize and celebrate these very real, very worthy successes.
Things like “managed to dry my hair and get dressed while my toddler ‘helped’” and “nursed my baby out of view while on a video call for work” are things that never make it onto a to-do list and are rarely in an Instagram feed, but they’re accomplishments nonetheless. And they are the beautiful, messy things that my day is made up of at this chapter in my life. I’ll get around to painting that hallway eventually. But for now, I’m off to read my babies one more book.
*Editor’s note: Pamela has, in fact, since the writing of this essay assembled her son’s changing table. The giant furniture box and his very growth was reminder enough that it needed to get done, and she did not have to put this item back on her to-do list.