Unconscious Doing

“Can you hand me the sour cream?”
“My backpack is in the front room will you go get it for me?”
“I need a spoon.”

Until I went away I didn’t notice the barrage of small requests my kids make of me just because I am in the room. I notice them now because last week I was not here and they got their sour cream, backpacks, and spoons for themselves. I also notice the requests which are not made because I anticipate them and get them done before the child thinks to ask. I pour milk for the child who is chattering, spoon in hand, but hasn’t yet looked at the bowl in front of her. I put sharpened pencils next to the homework binder to minimize interruptions to the study process. Anticipating the next necessary task is something I do constantly. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is one of the good gifts of anxiety, which carries over into relaxed tasks as well as worrisome ones. Perhaps I just learned to do this in the years when I was managing babies, toddlers, and preschoolers all of whom really did need someone to pour milk, hand out spoons, and find lost items. Maybe I learned it then and just never stopped.

My children don’t think about it either. They make these requests even when they are physically closer to the requested item than I am. If I’m paying attention and point this out, we all laugh together and they get it themselves. Yet the next time I’ll likely be distracted and just fulfill the request even if it makes far more sense for the child to do so. The thing is, I like anticipating needs and answering them. I like smoothing the obstacles so that important work can get done. Efficiency is pleasing to me and so I put forth the effort to create it whenever possible. This is why my attempts to re-train us all to let the kids do more are like emptying a bathtub with a spoon. Probably a spoon I fetched for a child because they asked for it.

“I think you had to leave because you’re so big. You fill the house.” Howard said as we were discussing my absence and trying to sort out why we all had to do this hard thing. This statement led to much teasing as I pointed out that perhaps different phrasing might be appropriate from a husband who is trying to welcome his wife home and make her feel loved. But after the jokes about wording were complete, I had to acknowledge that Howard is right. This is my house, arranged in the ways that I’ve selected, the schedule is primarily my design. Everyone else flows along with these things because I do a good job organizing. I do such a good job that until I’m not there to do it, no one stops to think if there could be another way. I’m pervasive and we could only see it by removing me from the picture for a week. A really hard week during which the folks at home sometimes despaired that they could keep it all together. In contrast I wrestled, not with guilt exactly, but with a deep part of myself which was convinced that leaving was a major dereliction and would cause harm. Logically I knew it was not true, but that deep place inside me believes that one of my primary jobs in life is to reduce stress for everyone else, particularly for Howard and the kids. I couldn’t even see this driving need until I put myself into a place where I couldn’t perform that function. Now I see it. Now I see how it has me fetching spoons and back packs every single day.

I think seeing it is half the battle. I can’t unknow this and I don’t want to. Seeing it will cause a hundred little shifts in my responses to these unthinking requests. All those tiny changes are likely to result in large pattern shifts over time. It will be interesting to see how much things are different in six months.

1 thought on “Unconscious Doing”

  1. A stressed reduced now can cause more stress later on, so it is good that you are seeing these habits now can therefor start reigning them in so that your children can grow up to be fully independent when that time comes. My Mother-in-Law was similar to you in that she did take care of every little need like you describe, such that my wife had some interesting challenges once she moved out, and still hasn’t entirely outgrown certain habits that come about when someone else magically takes care of everything.
    I think it is a common enough trait that some parents want to take care of their children all the time, but the cycle of life says that can’t be. Teaching your children (all 5 🙂 to be able to manage on their own is a very good thing, and testing by periodic absences is useful. Perhaps soon, you and Howard will be able to leave on joint trips leaving Kiki in charge.

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