Last year was a challenging year. In October our baby – our third child – turned one and somewhat overnight went from a sweet, amiable baby to a really needy, challenging toddler. My older two children had been pretty easygoing toddlers and I suddenly had full sympathy for mamas who struggled with meltdowns, temper tantrums, picky eating, bad sleeping, etc.
My initial strategy was just to wait it out. Surely it was just a phase. And of course our wonderful toddler was not all bad, but she was very challenging especially when it came time to homeschool my oldest child. We all but abandoned our sacred read-aloud time because the toddler would just scream, or climb on me, or refuse to let anyone hold the book. It was hard. I was trying to teach math while a one-year-old put things in her mouth or tore apart our four-year-old’s drawing or drew on our chalkboard with crayons. On days when my husband was home he would come extract the toddler for a 15-minute break while he made a second cup of coffee midmorning and some days I felt like what I was able to accomplish with my big kid in those 15 minutes was all the education that happened that day.
My husband sat with me on many an evening last year and listened to my tear-filled accounts of how our day had gone. I seriously considered switching to an unschooling mode until our toddler grew out of this phase, but for various reasons that switch didn’t sit right with us. We knew it wouldn’t be a good fit for us as parents or for our oldest child, who absolutely loves structured learning and the Waldorf-inspired curriculum we use. We muddled through the year and felt confident that the next year would be better.
Over the summer I went back and forth about whether I would need to make some kind of a drastic change in order for this year to go more smoothly. I toured a Waldorf preschool in our neighborhood and considered enrolling our soon-to-be-two-year-old. Again, the solution that seemed to make all kinds of sense didn’t sit right. Having her out of the house for four hours a morning, three days a week would make homeschooling so much simpler! More enjoyable! But of course the whole reason I chose to homeschool in the first place was because I love being home with my children. And I love the gift that a slow childhood at home provides to young children. Rushing my toddler off to someone else’s house three days a week didn’t seem like the right answer.
I made some half-hearted attempts over the summer to find a babysitter who could come help us during the week, but I never found someone who felt like the right fit and I was really struggling with the guilt of spending time away from my youngest child and sticker shock over how much it would cost to get in-home help.
We started the school year with no help in place and just a hope that as our one-year-old turning into a two-year-old she would have matured just enough to make things feel manageable. Except things weren’t any better. My nine-year-old’s academic work was evolving and requiring more of my attention. Suddenly I had a five-year-old who needed more of my focus as I brought him some kindergarten activities. And the toddler still wanted mama’s attention at all times, and was potty training on top of that. I was trying to teach phonemes one minute and dashing to empty a potty the next. I felt pulled in a million directions and reached lunchtime feeling like everybody was just barely getting what they needed from me, but that I was pouring from an empty cup.
At this point I realized (with much encouragement from my husband) that I needed help. It was ok to acknowledge that I could not homeschool my children, keep our house running, provide everyone three home cooked meals a day AND keep a demanding toddler happy.
I put an ad on a babysitting service Web site and described our needs. I was explicit about what I needed help with – help with both keeping our toddler happy while I homeschooled our children but also help with basic household tasks that I was perpetually behind on, like laundry, tidying up and kitchen maintenance.
It has been about a month now since our wonderful babysitter joined us and all I can think is that I wish I had admitted I needed help sooner. I wish I had stopped pretending that we were in a temporary phase that would end any day now when instead it went on month after month. Our home is cleaner and calmer than it has been since we had our third child. I now have three uninterrupted hours, three days a week to focus on pouring into my big kids. We are getting so much done! And we are reconnecting with each other after spending too much time feeling stressed and constantly interrupted.
One of the big questions I asked myself over the summer was whether homeschooling was even a good choice for us in this season. I considered the idea of sending my oldest child to school. But the thought I kept coming back to is that my nine-year-old and I LOVE our school time together. Homeschooling is one of the most beautiful parts of our relationship. I know that’s not the case for every family or in every season but for us, learning at home has been such a gift for us as mother/daughter. I did not want to give that up because we were struggling with a third child who, honestly, was being put in a situation that was not meeting her needs. My youngest child needed to be going to parks and spending time examining every leaf on our sidewalk. I wasn’t able to meet both of those needs and I had to forgive myself for that.
I have to admit that having help in our home has been an adjustment for me. I have had to work on getting comfortable with asking for help with specific tasks and also with letting go of my strange concern that our babysitter is happy and having fun! Ha! Sounds so silly but it’s hard for me to have someone under my roof and not worry about if they have everything they need. It’s also been hard for me to let go of having experiences with my toddler. I have real sadness that I’m not the one taking her to story time at the library, or teaching her a new song. But I also have true happiness that she is having those experiences, and getting out of the house and doing age-appropriate activities, rather than being stuck in our school room while I focus on her big siblings. In the long run I doubt she will need therapy because her babysitter taught her left from right, rather than her mom. But these are the things we mamas worry about …
There are so many unique circumstances that go into our mothering. The ages of our children, the resources we have available to us, our partner’s work schedule, the children’s health and diet, the location and involvement of our extended family, our own unique gifts, our health struggles, our personality and temperament and the demands put on us by ourselves and others. Here’s what I have to say after going through everything I’ve gone through in the past year: if you feel overwhelmed, there are legitimate reasons for it. If you feel like there are not enough hours in the day, or you need a body double or sister-wife, it’s because there is literally too much on your plate. You cannot do it all. And it’s ok to want to thrive instead of just survive.
Hiring a babysitter for nine hours a week hasn’t magically changed everything and there are still times I feel overwhelmed and I am still occasionally making a meal with a toddler shouting at me. But I will say that ALL of the relationships in my house have benefited from the help, and surprisingly the one that has improved the most is my relationship with my toddler. Where I was feeling frustrated with her a lot of the time, now we get a little distance and then I am so happy to see her, and am able to appreciate her for all of her wonderful two-ness. I loved two with my other two children and I’m so happy I get to love two a third time around.