When I was in my 20’s, I had a boyfriend who spoke with a lazy, southern drawl and liked reading Yeats’ poetry aloud in bed. It was divine — until I wondered whether he wanted the experience reciprocated. The thought of reading long tomes of poetry, or anything really, out loud sounded dreadful. I often lost my voice in those days, whether from the copious amounts of alcohol I consumed while shouting to be heard in loud bars or the clouds of cigarette smoke others felt at liberty to leave behind.
Fast forward twenty years later, and while I no longer stay out until 3 a.m. dancing on tables and losing my voice, I still don’t enjoy reading out loud. Not even to my kids. Not even when I know it is one of the most important things developmentally in their early years.
When it’s my turn to choose a story for my son’s bedtime, word count and humor are my top criteria. Sure, we all have nights when we’re bone-deep exhausted after a full day of parenting and want to get the heck out of our kids’ room as fast as possible. I think every parent has dreaded reading bedtime stories at some point. But even on my best days, when I’m full of energy, I just do not enjoy reading bedtime stories aloud.
While I do love snuggling next to my kids with a (short) book, I’d rather do twenty push ups than read a chapter book for twenty minutes. Seriously. Can I do some of the push ups on my knees? Then I’m definitely in.
And yet, I feel guilty about this. Like I’m a bad mom who doesn’t care enough about her kids.
Reading stories aloud is a much-touted aspect of parenting. Studies have shown that babies who are read to and talked to score higher in language skills and cognitive development. Recent research shows there’s a million-word discrepancy by kindergarten in kids whose parents read aloud to them and those who didn’t. The science may be solid, but my body begs to differ.
But we’ve all got parenting tasks we hate. Maybe you can’t stand arts and craft projects, or cooking, or getting dirty outside with your kids. Whatever basic element of parenting doesn’t float your boat, I’m here to tell you there is a different way. It has to do with defining which parts of parenting fall into your zone of genius, which do not, and giving yourself permission to focus on the former and let go of the latter whenever possible.
In my work as a women’s leadership coach, I often counsel clients using a framework from psychologist and personal growth expert Gay Hendricks. But I’ve found it works just as well for parenting. Hendricks argues in his book The Big Leap that our activities in the world fall into four main zones: the Zone of Incompetence, the Zone of Competence, the Zone of Excellence, and the Zone of Genius. The Zone of Genius refers to those activities that you are uniquely suited to do — the things where time flies by in a flow state and you’re left with more energy when you’re done.
The Zone of Incompetence, meanwhile, includes everything you’re not good at and don’t enjoy. For one of my clients, that was cooking: “I had internalized the cultural message saying that’s what a mom does. When I finally just gave up, I got so much energy back.” And for me, it’s excruciatingly long bedtime stories.
That’s just how it is: There are activities that you will be naturally drawn towards as a parent that you really enjoy, and other activities that suck the life force out of you quicker than being on hold with your airline’s customer service line. For example, one of my girlfriends loved making homemade purees for her baby. Planning out new combinations with beets and carrots and deciding which spices to include excited her. Her voice would rise three octaves when she described the joy this brought her. Personally I’d rather stick an ice pick in my eye but I love taking my kids on hikes, baking and doing craft projects with them.
My other girlfriend can't stand doing arts and crafts projects with her kids. She abhors the mess and said even just looking at her kids’ art containers filled with glitter and glue makes her skin crawl worse than nails on a chalkboard. I could craft until the cows come home. Glitter is my middle name. The mess doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I kind of enjoy it.
As parents, our Zone of Incompetence can cause us to feel shame because we think we should enjoy all aspects of parenting. This is a myth that makes us miserable. If you feel dread, boredom, or discomfort with a task, chances are you may have found your Zone of Incompetence. When you let go, a tremendous weight will go, too.
My friend who abhors glitter and glue found a babysitter who was an art major in college to do craft projects with her three kids. The babysitter even painted a gorgeous abstract mural on her daughter’s wall. Everyone wins when we are each given permission to be in our Zone of Genius.
You can begin to discover your Zone of Genius simply by paying attention. Start to notice what makes you feel alive or which tasks you actually don’t mind as a parent. As you give yourself permission to focus on those activities in your Zone of Genius and let other things go, you’ll feel more energized, more connected to yourself, your creativity and your kids, and have greater satisfaction overall. If you need help saying no to activities outside your Zone of Genius, use this “Say No Cheatsheet.”
Rather than analyzing why you don’t like a specific activity or beating yourself up over it, try giving yourself permission to let it go. Focus on the things you naturally enjoy and do well as a parent. Sure, sometimes you can’t outsource or let go of every aspect of parenting — I still read my kids stories aloud several nights a week. But “tickle time” with my daughter and other games and quiet activities we play at bedtime ALSO bring us both a lot of joy. I make sure to go on hikes and do craft projects with my kids, because we both love those activities. The key is to write your own rulebook based on what makes you come alive. Because at the end of the day, your kids just want you to be happy and fulfilled, even while parenting them.
Vanessa Loder is a global keynote speaker; her work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, the Huffington Post and Glamour magazine, among others. Her TEDx talk “How To Lean In Without Burning Out” has over 150,000 views, over 18,000 people have taken Vanessa’s paid online courses and her guided meditations have been streamed over 1 million times globally. Loder is the author of the forthcoming book, The Soul Solution: A Guide for Brilliant, Overwhelmed Women to Quiet the Noise, Find Their Superpower and (Finally) Feel Satisfied, released by SoundsTrue in October 2022.
Vanessa received her MBA from Stanford University and her BA from Columbia University where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude. Loder is a certified Executive Coach, trained in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, past life regression and Vipassana meditation with Jack Kornfield. Vanessa currently lives in Lafayette, CA with her husband and two children, who remind her to take “mommy time-outs” when she’s about to lose her marbles. Visit her at vanessaloder.com.