One of the biggest difficulties for me while raising my own children has been the lack of family time. There were so many demands with work, school, and evening activities that finding time to be together as a family or to relax at all was difficult. We were running constantly. If I were to begin raising my kids again I think that is what I would change first.
There is no parent that doesn’t want to see their kids happy. During the time in which I have been raising my children, the definition of happy and well-rounded seemed to be having the kids involved in every activity possible. They were involved in baseball, softball, football, soccer, horseback riding, and 4-H to name a few. Every evening of the week we were running somewhere. Sometimes it was far enough away that I had to stay and sometimes it was just a drop off and pick up in 2 hours. Regardless, it was quite hectic. We rarely ate dinner together (and what we did eat was often without supervision and not what I would have considered “dinner” food, or it was fast food grabbed and eaten at the evening activity which got expensive); we rarely had time to talk about the events of the day and my husband and I had almost no time to talk privately with each other. Dishes were cleaned up after 8PM; homework was started at 9 or later and showers and bedtime were generally after 10PM. Although the kids were happy and excited about the evening’s activities, they were wound up and settling down for bed was difficult. Younger kids who were dragged along to an activity were in complete melt-down by the time we got home. By the time my husband and I got to bed we were ready to collapse. The weekends were spent catching up on shopping and errands in addition to kid’s activities. Even Sunday had become just another day of the week with sports and activities being scheduled that day too. Where were the Blue Laws when I needed them?
This schedule went on for several years. Then our oldest son developed an eating disorder and our entire world changed. Suddenly, meals required supervision; suddenly he required supervision.
Our son’s illness did catalyze a lot of changes. While the illness certainly brought its share of pain and suffering for all of us, it also forced some changes that I think were to the benefit of everyone. One of those changes was family meals and downtime. After our son was discharged from the hospital someone had to be having meals with him. At first, our schedule didn’t change at all and my husband and I rotated taking our kids to activities while the other stayed home and ate dinner with our son. I realized that on the nights that it was my turn to stay home I was more relaxed (actually that is a relative term because the worry and concern as to whether he would finish his dinner was not really relaxing for me, but the time at home, the conversation, and the ability to have dishes cleaned up early, put younger children to bed early, and prepare for the next day was). During this time I began realizing just how much more relaxed and rested my younger children were. The ability to stay home with mom or dad and stay on a regular meal and sleep schedule made a tremendous difference in the atmosphere of our home. Instead of dragging a tired, grouchy, crying child home after an evening on the ball field (and some of those games were not close to home so they were asleep in the car seat on the way home. Who can relate to what it is like to take a sleeping kid out of a car seat after a 20 min. nap?) I could play with them or read to them in the evening and put them to bed early.
Even so, something was missing. We still didn’t eat dinner as a family most evenings and my husband and I still had very little time together. Our school aged children were still involved in several activities which meant a lot of running around and it was tiring. While the atmosphere was better, it wasn’t relaxed. It was then I started realizing that as parents, and now caregivers, our needs had to matter as well. If mom and dad were totally exhausted all the time and had no time to unwind after a busy day, the effects trickled down to the rest of the family.
Changes were made and while they initially went over a bit like a pregnant pole vaulter, in time they were accepted and, dare I say, appreciated. We made a rule that each child could pick one activity (sports, 4-H, etc.) that would involve being out in the evening. The activities were planned so that we would be eating dinner and home together as a family at least 4 evenings per week. The 3 evenings that we didn’t were rotated so that mom or dad was home having dinner with those who didn’t have an activity. This allowed for homework to be done early, time to play a game, preparation for the next day, and an earlier bedtime. It cut down on the running around for my husband and me and allowed us to have time to talk and to unwind after a busy day. Most of all it allowed for dinner conversation and catching up on the day. I felt like I was up to date on what was going on with my children. I wasn’t just getting the “highlights” in the car on the way to an activity. I was hearing the little details of the day as well. Meals became more than just watching to make sure my son was eating, but about conversation and sharing. I caught up on so many other things that they were doing and thinking.
Cell phones and video games were put away after dinner to allow time to concentrate on homework and relax and unwind before bed. Bedtime was no longer fluid; it was a fixed time which allowed for mom and dad to also have a set and reliable time to sleep. The kids still had activities, sleepovers, special events, and time with their friends. They just didn’t have as many organized activities that were so time consuming.
The needs of every family and every individual vary. For me, a more relaxed and less hectic atmosphere was important. I knew many parents and caregivers who appreciated the time outside of the house and didn’t mind the hectic evenings because it gave them time to socialize with other adults and that was what met their needs. The point of this post isn’t about what one should or shouldn’t need, but that the needs of everyone, including parents and caregivers are equally important.
As parents and caregivers of a child or loved one suffering with an eating disorder we see how the eating disorder not only affects the sufferer, but also the rest of the family. The family adjusts accordingly to meet whatever needs arise. Parents and caregivers have needs as well. Their role is crucial to the rest of the family and no one is performing at their best when they are overwhelmed and exhausted. It is OK, even if no one in the family has an eating disorder, to consider your needs when planning the family schedule. No one’s child is going to spend the rest of their life in therapy because they were or were not allowed to participate in every single activity they desired. In fact, by considering your own needs as well as theirs you are teaching them some very valuable lessons. They learn, by your example, to have a sense of self; that having a need and setting limits isn’t selfish. A child also learns to be part of a family and consider the needs of everyone. This teaches compromise and they learn to be a “team player” and understand that every member of the team is equally important. They learn decision making and how to prioritize when they must choose which activities are most valuable to them. It helps teach them the concept of boundaries and that we are all human and have needs. This promotes respect and empathy not only of others, but of themselves as well. By considering your own needs in the family schedule, you are not punishing or depriving your children, you are actually teaching by example something that many of us never internalize. Teaching this right from the beginning is a valuable gift and far from a selfish indulgence.