I am doing the most important job in the world — raising a child that is — or so I am told. It is up to me to shape a kind, loving, honest, all in all decent human being. The grandeur of the task ahead of me should instill a feeling of greatness and pride, not to mention self-importance, yet on a day-to-day basis I feel that I have done nothing of value.
Child-rearing may seem like the most profound project one can take on, but when broken into smaller tasks — as all big projects should be in order to be executed — it involves a great deal of menial chores.
It is almost impossible to feel accomplished about washing a sink full of dishes, doing laundry, or picking up toys, especially when those tasks are repeated daily. They become routine, like brushing one’s teeth, and who ever felt accomplished after brushing their teeth?
I do, however, feel accomplished after brushing Kroshka’s teeth, when he lets me do it. But those are fleeting victories: I may have done a good job in the morning, but come evening and it’s smeared toothpaste on the sink and frustration all over again.
Besides, can I include “brushing my son’s teeth” on my to-do list to then cross it off and feel good about myself? Technically, I could, but do I actually do it? Nope. Just like I don’t bother writing down “make lunch” or “wash clothes”: my family will not let me forget that they need to eat three times a day and clothes spilling out of the laundry basket onto the floor is a reminder in and of itself.
According to Psychology Today, crossing off even the smallest tasks on a check list causes production of dopamine and the consequent feeling of satisfaction will help your brain to build new patterns:
“This is one reason people benefit from to-do lists: the satisfaction of ticking off a small task is linked with a flood of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a whiff of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the associated behavior.”
Seems like all that stands between me and an immense desire to wash dishes is one line on a check list.
My actual check list is filled with blog-related activities. When it comes to work, tasks as small as sending an email seem meaningful and worthy of a spot on the list. I keep asking myself: why though? Why is sending an email or making an appointment feel like legitimate tasks, but getting my two-year-old dressed to go out in winter is not worth mentioning?
Having done both, I assure you, the latter requires five times the amount of energy and ten times the amount of time compared to the former. It is more exhausting on both physical and emotional level, leaving you out of breath and on the brink of exploding before you even stepped out of the house.
And so my day is filled with chores that get done, but go unnoticed, and my to-do list is full of “important” tasks that are never ticked off. By the time I made three meals, washed the dishes, took Kroshka to the playground, read to him, played with him, and put him to sleep, I have zero energy to do “actual work”.
As I type quotation marks for “actual work” I understand logically, that routine work around the house and caring for a child are meaningful and energy-consuming. But no matter how many times I tell myself that wiping soup off the floor is just as significant as, say, writing this article, my brain doesn’t seem to buy it. The question is then where to seek that sense of accomplishment, so integral to feeling successful in what you do?
When I talked about it with my girlfriends, some of whom have kids and some who don’t, a common answer was to look at your baby’s accomplishments as your own. Your baby’s first steps and first words are all the reward you need. It doesn’t work for me.
Does my son string words into sentences because I read to him daily or because every baby eventually starts talking? The first steps are even harder to regard as my victory.
Interestingly, while my son’s accomplishments are his own, anything that goes wrong I perceive as my personal failure. Kroshka refused to eat dinner? Probably because I gave him too many snacks after lunch. He puts one foot inward when walking? I must have bought the wrong type of shoes.
Another suggestion was to scale up. One day or even one month in the life of a child is not enough to see the results of parental efforts. But twenty years down the line, you’ll be able to say: I’ve done a good job. Maybe. But I have a strong feeling in twenty years I will be questioning myself: have I raised him well or was he born a good kind-hearted human being?
I have just asked my mom whether she thinks she did a good job as a parent and she replied with: “Not really, but to this day I am trying hard”.
It seems to me, the sense of accomplishment is not something I should strive for as a parent. It will never come, no matter how many dinners I cook from scratch. My source of dopamine is not ticking off tasks on a to-do list, but my son’s tiny hands hugging my neck, his warm body against my chest upon waking up, a laugh-turned-squeal when I pretend to eat his little feet. Sending a hundred emails never felt this good.