My good friend is a single mother. Her days are as intricately plotted as a military operation: get up, nurse the baby while the pre-schooler watches a show, make breakfast, dress them both, pack lunches, get herself dressed and ready for work while the kids watch another show, drop one child at day care and the other at nursery school, catch the subway, skid into work, retrieve the kids at the end of the day, stop for groceries, supervise dinner, give baths, pump while the older child watches a third show, and finally, put him to bed with a book or two. Then clean the kitchen, wash out the lunch boxes, answer work emails, and hit the sack for what is always a short night of sleep.
For all this, she doesn’t complain very much. But once, while we were hanging out at school pickup, she said that she wished the kids watched less TV, but she doesn’t have any other way to occupy them while she’s pumping or showering. Another mom at pick-up said, “Can’t you just set out some crayons or crafty stuff? That’ll keep him busy for a little while.”
My friend sighed and said she supposed she could, but she knows the TV will reliably mesmerize the kids for 10 or 20 minutes, while they lose interest in the crayons after 20 seconds—plus then there’s the craft stuff to clean up.
Another friend, who has a busy job and often gives her family prepared, packaged foods for dinner, made the mistake of lamenting in public that she wished she could make a home-cooked meal at night. Someone in our group replied, “Can’t you just prep the meals on the weekends and then reheat them during the week?”
My friend replied, “Not really,” pointing out that the weekends were already chock-full of errands, chores and child care.
Now these interactions weren’t as hostile as they seem in print. Our mom group is pretty supportive, and the responses were meant to be helpful—suggestions for “hacks” for getting everything done. But they still left the mom in question feeling a little…put down. If only she were more efficient, the kids would be eating homemade meals of braised bulgur wheat and playing with wooden blocks instead of watching TV.
But we never could be efficient enough to do all the things that we’re “supposed” to be doing as mothers. I work a fairly flexible schedule, and I still find it really hard to fit in cooking, exercise, hobbies, cleaning, and quality time with my kids. In any given day, most of those things, if not all of them, fall by the wayside. I like hacks as much as anyone, like tips for quick bathroom cleanups, or recipes that yield three dinners instead of one, but they don’t solve the fundamental problem that there aren’t enough hours in the day.
I think that it would be an overall kindness to recognize that not every problem is solvable—because there’s only so much time and energy. Or at least by recognizing that “solving the problem” might involve something imperfect, like McDonald’s takeout or a third hour on the iPad.
I got my own “can’t you just…” when my second son was 6-weeks-old, and a college friend invited us all to a park in Manhattan, a subway ride away from our home in Brooklyn. We didn’t go because I couldn’t face the logistics of getting both kids there. My friend said, “Can’t you just stick the baby in the carrier and bring a travel stroller?” And yes, I suppose I could have, but at the moment I just couldn’t deal with packing the backpack, holding the 3-year-old’s hand in one hand and the stroller in the other, navigating the baby’s nursing and naps. No, I couldn’t “just” do anything, because I was totally overwhelmed and tired. And then I also felt a little guilty, because I was too much of a wimp to make this long-anticipated trip happen for my son.
This phrase is, yes, a small thing. But it makes parents, who are already struggling and overwhelmed, feel just a tiny bit worse that their lives are not as picture-perfect as they “should” be. No, some of us just can’t cook from scratch, or squeeze in 20 minutes of exercise, or clean the filthy living room. Sometimes you have no will to do anything but lie facedown in a pint of Haagen-Daz.
So join me in banning this phrase from our mom vocabulary. It’s not my job to solve my friends’ problems, especially when they know all the solutions already (yes, everyone in the world knows you can meal-prep on the weekends). It’s my job as a friend to say, “Eh, Stouffers is delicious” or “Eh, we watched 19 hours of TV a day and we turned out fine.” I know it’s a temptation to try to offer solutions. But sometimes the only solution is to let someone know they’re doing just fine.