How to transform boring routines into magical & loving rituals
Most of us are all too familiar with the daily routines that govern our lives as parents. Maybe we even rush through them to get onto more ‘important’ things. But what if these daily moments with our children are the important things? Miriam McCaleb shares the beauty and connection that can be found in slowing down and relishing the routines.
Routines get a fairly hard time, in my opinion – they're underestimated and unappreciated. And while it can be fun to shake them up now and then, it’s useful to remember how powerful they are in supporting wellbeing in young children. It’s okay to go off the rails now and then, but best to have firm, clear rails to jump back onto.
Predictability is a baby’s friend, consistency makes a toddler happier. And to make the most of the value and power of routines, we would do well to embrace and celebrate them – you’ll be rewarded. Here’s a real life example: picture a small group of mothers and babies on a living room floor. There is chatting, playtime and a robust cup of coffee for each mama (positioned responsibly out of bubba’s reach!). One of those mums is me, in yoga pants and scruffy ponytail, and one of those babies is my now-teenaged daughter. At some point, her nappy needs changing. Taking a moment to get her attention, I say to her 9- or 10-month-old self, “Hey honey, I can tell you need a nice fresh nappy. It’s time for a nappy change."
Here’s where I risk sounding braggadocious, but please bear with me. My little baby girl studies my face carefully, listening, and then lies herself down in preparation for a new nappy. The other mums, whose babies had one by one attempted to evade fresh pants – wriggling away from their mothers’ purposeful and loving hands – stared in amazement. She did not try to get away from me, instead was welcoming, cooperating and participating in the routine. Just like always.
You’d have thought she’d just performed a fire poi routine, or something equally as impressive – my mama pals were gobsmacked. And the astonishment of those mothers confirmed that my baby and I were on the right track. Attentive, focused caregiving routines might take longer at first, but they grant beautiful rewards (and make less mess!).
Having been an early childhood teacher, lecturer and all-around baby obsessive for years before becoming a parent, I knew it wasn’t just good luck that led my daughter to engage in that nappy change so helpfully. It wasn’t even a trait that was peculiar just to her! Caring for lots of other infants and having been lucky enough to sit at the feet of some truly great teachers, I knew that this was possible for all babies.
Respect begets respect, and caregiving routines are a gift. Yup, that’s what I said. Caregiving routines are a gift. At the risk of exhausting you, let’s name the things we consistently do for our children on any given day: there’s the waking-up routine, breakfast time, getting dressed, morning tea, playtime, lunch and nap routines. Amongst those routines are likely to be many drinks of milk, many nappy changes, some unanticipated clothing changes, perhaps jackets and sunhats on or off, carseats buckled and unbuckled, shoes on, shoes off. There will be another snack or two at some point. Dinnertime, bath time, stories and bedtime. Phew! And we didn’t even wipe the kitchen bench yet, let alone do the laundry!
In a world that undervalues both babies and caregiving of all kinds, is it any wonder that so many of us have absorbed the message that all those caregiving routines are just drudgery? They can be presented as boring, thankless and unglamorous. If this is our inner script, we are likely to try and whizz through the routines as quickly as we can. But what are we whizzing toward exactly?
Friends, rushing those routines doesn’t actually serve anybody. With so much of a baby’s day involving caregiving, treating those routines like an inconvenience runs the risk of communicating to children that THEY are an inconvenience. If our behaviour and words suggest that nappy changes are an annoying thing to rush through – is it any wonder a mobile infant will crawl away as quickly as their chubby little legs will allow?
Consider instead that caregiving is the noblest form of work. Caring for others is honourable, it is relationally rich, it is an act of pure love. Sure, there will be repetition. No, this mindset won’t always come easily. And yes, poo can be stinky. But when the reward of a calm, attentive and joyful caregiving routine is a calm, cooperative and confident child – I’d say it’s worth a crack. So what might that look like, in practice?
This might be the most important parenting lesson, right here. Many of us have become experts at bustling through life at pace – some of us as a necessity in our workplaces. You don’t get to be a nurse in an emergency room unless you can make quick decisions, respond immediately and pivot from thing to thing at pace. Crikey, you can barely make it through the supermarket shop or the drive home without a similar skill set.
The thing is, that pace is unhelpful to small children. It can overwhelm them, and children's immature sensory systems can take a little longer to receive and make sense of messages. Sometimes, our rush-rush-rush approach to life robs them of the chance to show us how capable they are of understanding and cooperating. By the time they are ready to join us, we have moved on to the next thing.
Really slow your pace ... and then slow it some more. Try mucking around with the concept known as ‘tarry time’. You might ask, “What the dickens is tarry time?” I know I did when I first heard the phrase. In the words of author and teacher Janet Lansbury, tarry time is simply the “silence between interactions,” or the amount of time it takes for a child to process and respond to incoming information, what someone has just said, a change in body position or a change in activity.
‘WITH’, NOT ‘TO’
When we slow ourselves down and provide tarry time, we can start to invite babies to actively participate in their own care. This is partnership in action – it’s performing a caregiving routine with a child, and not to that child. I’ve seen really young babies (as young as four months!) who can respond appropriately to their adult’s request: “Can you lift your legs up? I’ll take these trousers off for you. I’ll wait while you lift your legs.” Wait... wait... sooner or later s/he will do it!
Similarly, given enough time, babies can help to push their own hands through sleeves, toddlers can climb into their own carseats. I know, we don’t always have luxurious amounts of time, sometimes you gotta get things sorted quickly and get down the road. If those days can become the exception rather than the rule, babies will be more tolerant of an occasional rush – especially if you explain, saying something like “Sorry to rush, honey, I have to get you changed as quickly as possible today!”
MAKE THE MOST OF IT – IT HAS TO HAPPEN ANYWAY!
It seems counterintuitive that slowing down caregiving routines will lead to more time for you later, but I promise it’s true. One of the ways to unhook your brain from frustration about this point is to recognise that caregiving routines have to happen anyway. You will have to get this child dressed, fed and bathed one way or another. Often, it’s perfectly possible to spend another few minutes getting it done with songs, smiles and chat. It’s up to you whether this time that must be spent getting this done anyway will be a potential source of valued learning, or a hurried rush.
IT'S ALL LEARNING, ALL THE TIME
To expand that point, it can be helpful to try dropping the delineation between ‘fun and educational’ and ‘boring, waste-of-time routine’. A baby does not differentiate between ‘learning’ and ‘not learning’ – they are learning all the time. So routines are just another opportunity for promoting the child's learning and development, and for deepening the relationship between child and caregiver. The act of getting a jacket on is as important as the trip to the playground that follows. One of my teachers, Janet Gonzalez-Mena, puts it this way: “Pay attention to the whole child, not just the immediate task”.
The gift of our attention is the most wonderful thing we can provide for our children. This means that we allow the child to overtake the moment, as we work together to achieve our practical task. We share, gaze and chat, we can sing songs, we might practise our te reo Māori as we label baby’s body parts or play games. Caregiving routines are not the time for electronic devices – research shows that children given devices during caregiving routines are less able to regulate their own emotions later. While you’re at it, try leaving your phone in your bag in the next room. Researchers have found that this habit can help us to concentrate on what’s in front of us. Focus on one another, it’ll be worth it.
Predictable routines are important, but this is not about being rigid with time. Instead, this is about following a consistent sequence of events, or maybe using a favourite song that can be associated with a particular routine. In the words of infant expert, the late, great, Magda Gerber: “In a predictable environment, and with regular, dependable schedules, they [babies] feel comfortable, cry less, and life is easier for both infant and parents. Infants who do not need to adjust to too much unnecessary stimulation will eventually regulate their sleeping and eating patterns. This regularity will, in turn, give parents some predictable time for their own needs and interests.”
REPEAT AFTER ME - THIS IS VITAL WORK
Hear this, Mama: you are doing the most important job in the whole, wide world. Even (especially!) the ‘boring’ bits, and even if you cannot truly describe this to others. In her gorgeous book (that I wish everyone could read!) What Mothers Do, Naomi Stadlen writes: “It’s hard to find the words to communicate what ‘looking after my baby’ really means.” In a world convinced that having good work stories makes for a rich life, parenthood and caregiving squarely buck that trend. Tending to the future of the species might look like sitting and nursing for ages, or hanging the washing as you chat to your little one. While the unenlightened may undervalue these acts of love and care: we won’t make that mistake. This is vital work.
SET UP THE ENVIRONMENT FOR SUCCESS, AND WATCH THE SELF-TALK
Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself about providing care. Is your inner monologue one of martyrdom, peaceful acceptance or upbeat gratitude? Mine can oscillate from one to the other, depending upon circumstances (eg when was my last high-protein snack?!). While we cannot always control exterior situations, we can work toward controlling our reaction to those situations. A useful place to start is with our self-talk.
One example: I noticed that I was getting particularly stompy and cross around the laundry routine at our place. It mightn’t surprise you to learn that muttering “Blimmin’ ungrateful so and so’s” while sorting socks doesn’t make for a more harmonious family life. Instead, I kept reminding myself (alright, through gritted teeth at first), “I love taking care of my family.” Because I actually do. I wouldn’t want anybody else to take my place. I love those unruly people. They are my people!
Taking the concept a step further, I consciously made my laundry room a nicer place to be. I moved my oil diffuser in there so it smells gorgeous, put a nice rug on the floor and used visual cues to anchor me in love, putting family photos all around the room. Top tip: a framed photo of your children sleeping peacefully is pretty much guaranteed to induce warm and cosy feelings, even on the most difficult day!
THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Finally lovelies, I must remind you that these long days of caregiving and repetitious routines will end. Children grow, needs change and at some point you won’t require that capsule carseat anymore. Like everything in our lives, this chapter is temporary, so please give yourself permission to go for it – embrace nappy changes, take your time easing those dear wee toes into those impossibly small socks and sing that extra song at bath time. One day, one moment, one breath at a time, let these caregiving routines provide the framework for your lovely life together.
Miriam McCaleb is a researcher, writer and mother. She lives and works in North Canterbury. Visit her at baby.geek.nz.