I was sitting having a coffee recently and overheard a conversation on the table opposite me. There were two couples in their 60's talking about their children and grandchildren. One lady was expressing her disappointment about how her daughter seemed to have an attitude of "it's my life and I come first, my children have to fit around me." She compared this to her and her husband's approach to parenting which had been to spend as much time as a family as possible, always eating together at the end of the day, making time for a conversation together and rarely leaving their children so they could holiday as a couple alone. She felt that her grandchildren were missing out from her daughter's attitude. Although of course this was just a snapshot of their lives and I don't know the wider circumstances, I did think that she was highlighting a generational difference in parenting that was interesting. Are parents more selfish these days? Do we value our own personal time and development sometimes more than we value family time?
Society has certainly changed since these guys were parents. There were arguably less financial pressures and a more clear cut and traditional division of labour and childcare. 30-40 years ago it was more likely that the man would be working and the woman not working at all, working part time or waiting until children were school age to consider a return to the workplace. Was it easier to prioritise family time then?
The past 20 years or more has heralded important developments like an education system designed to propel girls and boys equally towards their dreams. Women make an enormous economic contribution through work and indeed are entitled to be visible in all industries. Meanwhile advances in transport and travel opportunities and technological developments mean we can that we can pretty much go where we want, when we want; consume whatever Arts we want and chat to whoever we want quickly and easily. This is all wonderful in so many ways but does it make us all a but more selfish? Our children are apparently growing more emotionally distressed, are these things linked at all? Google anything about attachment (Bowlby 1969) or the more recent work of Professor Tanya Byron to learn more about child developmental needs and how modern society is impacting on our kids.
My husband and I are unique amongst the people we know; we don't have a large family with grandparents, aunts and uncles who are happy and willing to scoop up our children and nurture and have fun with them when we aren't around. We do have one amazing grandmother and childminder. Our opportunities to socialise or holiday as a couple are limited. We are also different though in that we seem to believe that our family time should come first. Our children need us, especially in these early years and we are happy to make them a priority. That doesn't mean we don't look after ourselves too. We love a night or two away with the girls or the boys. We go out with our friends for the odd boozy lunch or dinner on our own. We both have jobs and hobbies we enjoy that take us away from one another. But we also know that little ones don't stay little for long and there is a great joy in being with them and sharing life with them. I don't really feel like a fortnight in the Maldives alone with my partner to re-connect; I would rather it's a family holiday right now. Soon enough these little ones will be doing their own thing and the world will be our oyster again.
It is important for kids to have separate time to develop confidence away from parents and vice versa. It's also healthy to still have your own life, of course it is. But I can't help but wonder if the balance is a bit off these days. Someone I know told me that they felt the most successful parents they knew were the ones who hadn't changed their lives at all and had made their daughter fit in with them. She stayed up late and went out for dinner when they did; she holidayed with their adult friends and she stayed with Grandparents whilst they jetted off across the world alone. Now and again, fine, but if their needs remain the priority then how does this feel to a child/ young person?
Working with young people as I do/ have they often talk in therapy about seeking parental love, attention and approval. It's often at the core of most issues. Even if I don't ask it comes up. Perhaps we could all put down our phones, stop worrying about whether we are getting enough "me time" and pay attention to this a little more closely?
Maybe those older guys in the coffee shop had a point?
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