I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home parent for nearly ten years now. What’s brought me the most happiness is the concept of flow. I’ve only really come close to mastering it this past year.
Each day flows with energy, and I mean that literally, not in a woo-woo sense. Each day’s flow of energy is the combined moods and circumstances of everyone in the family. Sometimes the flow is cheerful and lively, sometimes it’s choppy and disjointed, sometimes it’s slow and relaxed.
I start each day by observing the flow. I don’t do this consciously anymore—I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve ever done it consciously, it’s just now I’ve observed my own patterns and puzzled this out.
So, observe the flow: How is everyone getting out of bed? Right side? Wrong side? Slowly? Humming with energy? Agreeable? I include myself in the assessment.
For me, the best way to begin the day and observe the flow is through calmness. No TV on, no music, no phones first thing. The household is waking up, and it’s more enjoyable to ease into the day than to crash into it like a drill sergeant banging garbage can lids. I’m an introvert who is easily worn out by excessive noise or activity. So for me, and for my kids, low noise keeps the inmates calm.
Kids rely on patterns (and so do I, truthfully), so my assessment of the energy doesn’t necessarily change what we’re doing. (One thing I enjoy about being a stay-at-home parent, though, is the relative flexibility. I often can change our schedule if proceeding with plans will likely end in a train wreck.) Most of the time, I adjust how we’re doing things.
Ethan wakes up before me. He makes a nest of pillows and blankets on the couch, watches some videos or Netflix on his phone with headphones, gets something to eat. Harry and I wake up around the time Evie should arrive, between 7 and 7:30. I sit with the babies. Hold them. See where their moods and energy are. Oliver is usually up last, and I usually have to go get him out of bed. Sometimes I’ll give him his clothes in the bed. Sometimes he resists, and that’s his energy; sometimes he cooperates. If he resists, I offer a piggyback ride to the living room. And that’s a good example of how I change with the flow.
I try to keep my own emotional state out of the mix. Most of the time, I’m even-keeled by nature, so it’s easy to do. If Oliver is reluctant to get up, I don’t get irritated or angry (most of the time); I simply adjust the routine. He thrives on affection, so a piggyback ride offers the closeness that comforts him while also getting him where I need him to be.
If the babies are feeling independent and happy, I can do this and that around the house—the things that need to be done to get out the door, or even put on some toner and moisturizer if things are going really well—while they entertain each other. If they’re feeling clingy and needy, sometimes I’ll ask Ethan to help me get everyone to the car—because one of Ethan’s needs is to be on time and not rushed.
At age 11, he understands that if I ask for his help carrying a baby or a backpack, doing so contributes to his own happiness. He even frequently brushes Oliver’s hair for me while Oliver gets his socks and shoes on, if Oliver’s dragging. If Ethan begins to feel put-upon or stressed by the clock, I’ll remind him of how he can help the situation (carry someone or something) or feel less anxious about it (it’s only a 3-minute drive to school).
Out to the car.
I buckle Harry in first, then Evie (because she happily follows behind me), then I go around and buckle Oliver. We all call Bonnie and tell her to hop in during the buckling process, because she comes with us but tends to wander around a bit first. To Bonnie, every day is new, and also she’s a ding-dong, so remind her to hop in we must.
We drive to school in a quiet car. Sometimes we chat a little about the day ahead or fun things from yesterday. Sometimes Ethan asks a deep question about philosophy or the universe; sometimes he tells me some random gaming thing from YouTube.
Once we exit the neighborhood, I say a routine morning prayer (thanking God for the morning, for the babies, for bunnies, for their teachers, please keep everyone happy and safe, etc.). And then we’re at school.
Charlie the traffic guard gestures for us to enter the parking lot. Sometimes he’s friendly and wave-y; sometimes he stares grumpily at drivers who don’t cooperate perfectly or in a timely fashion. I’m never bothered: Charlie’s wife died a few years ago, so I know he must feel on edge from time to time. Charlie is a constant in the flow of our weekday mornings. Whether he’s happy or irritated doesn’t make a difference in how I feel. I try my best to allow the moods of others to glide over and around me like water off a duck’s back.
When we turn into school, I tell Oliver to unbuckle. He scrabbles around for his backpack, leans his palm forward so I can do the kissing hand, he shouts “bye Chubs!” to Harry (which many of the teacher assistants have noticed and enjoyed), and the two bigs walk into school together. Apparently, they used to hug before parting ways in the lobby; now Ethan usually pats Oliver on the head.
The routines are there, but I have contingencies in place for whatever the flow of the day dictates. Calm and observation play a key role in determining and easing into the flow of the day. But perhaps most of all, I must be willing to go with the flow rather than fight it. Doing so takes personal work.
The result, though, is harmony, whether the flow is fast or slow, choppy or smooth, energetic or pacific. Harmony doesn’t require specific circumstances. Harmony is where peace comes from. Harmony allows us to feel what we feel without destroying the peace of everyone else in the household (most of the time). We can feel moments of frustration or annoyance or sadness or mania or joy, experience them, then let them go.
I am happier when I neither attempt to float along gently in a whitewater, nor thrash around in a deep slow current. Just like on the beach: fighting the undertow is useless. You’ll wear yourself out and drown. (Which reminds me of a joke Jim Gaffigan made about having four kids. “Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby.”)
I realize this all sounds very high-minded for a weekday morning; it is. One of the main things I’ve learned from being a stay-at-home parent is the small things matter, because the small things are most of life. To give the small things their proper respect but also their proper significance. They’re something, but they’re not everything. This is how I can honor the flow without drowning in it.
So, on my best days, I don’t fight it. I let go of independent control. I hold my agenda with an open hand. And usually, I’m happier for it.
And that, friends, is the first 45 minutes of the day.