Saturday, March 23, 2013

Non-negotiables

At more than a few points this winter, it felt as though family life was kind of hanging by a thread. Either life felt too busy to get done what I wanted to accomplish or various children were in various states of crisis or there were just too many grey and cloudy days (OK, this was probably just my problem) or some combination of the above. And when those times happened, it was difficult to feel good about my parenting and/or homemaking because I was so busy thinking about all that wasn't happening.

While it's fine to have high standards for yourself and for your home, these cease to be a help and start to become a hindrance if they begin to cause so much guilt and self-loathing that it causes even less to be done. I know for me, it can start a wicked spiral if I lose all motivation to do anything because there is already so much I haven't done. It sort of feels as though there is so much to do, what's the point of doing anything. Of course this is just my overwhelmed self talking. Usually all it takes to get me back into the groove is a sunny day or a good night's sleep or a period of general calmness and I feel capable of putting things back in order. (And I can't even begin to tell you how relaxed I am currently feeling with three sunny, calm days and decent nights' sleep under my belt!)

Realistically, though, I think I need a better plan for the more difficult moments of life than to just grit my teeth and get through it. I've been reading The Explosive Child this past week and have been finding it extremely helpful and enlightening. (I know I will be writing a much longer post about just the book when I'm finished with it.) One of the concepts in helping children who are very easily frustrated and very inflexible is to reduce the number of things that cause this reaction as you work on the bare minimum of things that really need to happen. There are just some things which, while generally important, are not worth dealing with a raging child over. They can be temporarily dropped.

I think we could all benefit from implementing this idea into our lives. It feels a lot more proactive to know in advance which are the non-negotiables that need to be done regardless and what is just not as important to basic survival. And when life feels out of control, basic survival is where you feel you are at. This way, you know which things you just won't attempt, and by having thought it out ahead of time, you can avoid the guilt that might otherwise come with that decision. You have also thought about which things are your non-negotiables. Knowing this ahead of time, you can spend your small resources on these and not mistakenly spend them on something less important. I think this is important to know in advance because when life feels a little chaotic, critical and rational thinking is often the first thing to do.

As I think about this, my very basic list of non-negotiables for hard seasons is very short. Pretty much it contains: everyone gets fed and has dinner together, everyone has clean underwear, and everyone gets a bedtime story (if they want it). Since this is what life boils down to anyway in those times, I might as well admit it and not worry about the other stuff. The house can always be picked-up later, the non-essential clothes can always be washed at another time, meetings can be missed, and math pages caught-up on.

My essentials really speak to our basic needs. We need to eat, though the food doesn't need to be fancy (and having a decently filled pantry can be very helpful with this), it just has to be there. We need basic hygiene, though outer clothes can go quite a while before they are genuinely dirty. And we need connection and something to fill our souls, thus a meal together and stories together.

So I encourage you to think about your family's non-negotiables. Every family will have times of stress. Your family's stress may look different from mine, but the net effect is the same. Stress makes it difficult to do normal, everyday things and it makes it difficult to think clearly. Knowing ahead what's really important could be the key to weathering the tough times well.

We basically have pretty cushy lives here in the West and are not conditioned to make emergency plans. I have come to believe that having a plan for how to deal with family crises is just as important and knowing how you will all escape a burning building. We don't like to think about bad things happening, but just because we plan for them doesn't mean that they will happen, it does mean that if they do we will have done what we can to make it easier to manage.

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