All I wanted was a picnic. It didn’t seem like too much to ask. I was a brand new mother and I had a vision of my little family lounging in a serene park. In my vision, we were relaxing on a red & white gingham blanket, feasting on sandwiches made of gluten-free brioche, local cheese, and nitrate-free prosciutto. We soaked up the warmth of the 72-degree day under an old oak tree.
It was slow. It was delightful. It was a daydream. It was an idealization.
As a more seasoned mother, now I know that family picnics don’t look like this. The weather is rarely perfect. The blanket is covered with crumbs after the toddler stepped on all the sandwiches. You spend no time sitting, instead, you are corralling a tiny person who is more interested in running into the road than eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
It was supposed to be slow. It was supposed to be delightful. But instead, you can’t wait to get the $%^& out of there.
When we idealize time spent with family, real life can make us feel like we aren’t measuring up. We feel like we just aren’t doing something right. After you’ve had a few “failed” family outings like this you might begin to think that your kids just aren’t capable of soaking up “slow” days like you imagined.
As adults, we have a low tolerance for boredom. And we have an even lower tolerance for our kids to be bored. They whine, complain, and we perceive them as unhappy. No one wants their kids to be unhappy. As a result, we feel the pull to fill up all the free time with soccer practice, art classes, and tickets for kiddie concerts.
Why does slow living with kids feel so painful?
We can blame our idealizations. We may be holding onto some variation of the picnic vision. We hold onto visions about what family time should look like. Most likely it will be free from sibling conflicts and the kids will be beaming with happiness. Visions full of rainbows and butterflies.
But here’s the reality. Sometimes you will have glimpses of these blissful visions. You’ll see rainbows and butterflies. You’ll feed the family a healthy home-cooked meal, get at least 30 minutes of exercise, and the kids will be smiling.
But most days won’t be idyllic. These days are not a failure. Parenthood is not black and white. The days are not all good or all bad.
Parenthood is meant to be gray. Most days are going to be a delightful, warm shade of gray. There will be bickering. There will be bodily fluids in unexpected locations. There will be picky eaters.
But there will also be hugs. There will be laughs. There will be time for connection. It will never be perfect, but as long as you drop the expectation that your life is going to look like a movie you’ll be able to find beauty in your imperfect “gray” day. You can live a slow life with kids. But slow living doesn’t mean your children will be frolicking barefoot in a field of wildflowers and foraging for mushrooms. Instead, it means you can trade out some of your highly structured time for slower and more flexible alternatives.
Slow living with kids might mean fewer soccer practices and more taking the ball to the park to kick around. Or perhaps fewer dance lessons and more time breaking it down together to the latest hits in the kitchen. Do your kids really need a weekly foreign language lesson? Or can you broaden their world perspective by befriending an international family who speaks another language and eats unique food? You don’t have to schedule playdates, but you can show up at the playground prepared to introduce yourself to at least two other parents.
I’ve come to realize that slow living doesn’t mean sitting around on a picnic blanket staring longingly into each other’s eyes. Instead, it’s about creating a life with fewer obligations and more flexibility. When we free up time on our calendars we inadvertently make time for the most important things that never make it onto the to-do list: building relationships, making eye contact with one another, and tuning into the overall well-being of our families.
Slow living isn’t idyllic living. But when we start to let go of those idyllic visions of family life we can start embracing the perfectly imperfect people standing right in front of us. If you open your mind and change your expectations, slow living with children can be delightful.
About the Author: Denaye Barahona’s new book Simple Happy Parenting is now available. She is the voice behind Simple Families, a podcast, blog and community for parents. Denaye has a Ph.D. in Child Development and has spent her career supporting families to more harmonious lives with young children.