There's always so much to do as a parent in our busy culture, and anything 'extra', on top of everything we've already got scheduled in, can feel utterly overwhelming. So when my children fight, or get upset about something - especially when it's for what feels like the millionth time that day - I often (and way more often than I would like, too), find myself muttering under my breath words like: "As if I haven't got anything better to do than listen to their ridiculous gripes and squabbles…"
And that can feel so real to me in the moment. When I'm up to my eyeballs in mess, when there's dinner to cook, when we still haven't actually done anything that feels productive yet that day - the last thing I want is to spend my precious remaining time dealing with their emotional 'moments'.
But here's the thing: the reality is, I actually don't have anything better to do. Because actually very little comes higher up the priority list than their emotional wellbeing. Oh, it's hard for me to see that sometimes (often) of course. And it can be so hard for me to act with that in mind - often I don't; often I won't manage to quell those thoughts about how important the 'to do' list is right there and then, and that's ok too.
But increasingly - slowly, slowly - I am learning to make intentional choices about what's important to me in that moment. Rather than carrying on with what I'm doing because 'if I can just get this done…' or because 'but I'm nearly finished…' I am actively choosing my priorities in any given moment. Gradually I am more and more able to hold this principle in mind when it comes to what my children need; that their emotional wellbeing tops everything else, almost all of the time.
It's not just the more challenging moments though - putting our children's feelings first translates to the fun and excitement they bring to us too. The amount we have to do as parents is often so all-consuming, that it can be tremendously difficult to put it to one side. But if I can, sometimes - increasingly - turn to them fully, give them my full attention when they have a question, or want show me something they've made, or want to tell me something that's caught their interest, then I am topping them up, showing them that they are important beings and that their enthusiasm is valuable and valued.
Now, that's not to say it's easy, or that I manage it all the time, by any stretch. I might well have other things that I want to be doing (like my work, which I love), and, certainly in the case of fighting or upsets, there are often other things I could be doing which would be less painful, less triggering, than listening through my children's outbursts (I'll likely need to release and refuel afterwards!*). Often I just don't have the inner resources to put their feelings first. But I keep working on it - because very little is, in reality, more important than holding space and modelling self-regulation as best I can when they're finding things tough, or showing enthusiasm around their interests and ideas. There's not much that tops their feelings, and certainly not finishing off the washing up, that much I'm sure of - however much I might want to get it done! So I'll keep working on doing this a little more and a little more over time, because even though time is always short, I want them to know that they are at the top of my list just as often as I can manage it, one little situation at a time.
Of course, alongside remembering that our children's emotions are important, it is vital (if challenging to many of us!) that we put ourselves, as parents, right up there on that list too; working to find ways to replenish ourselves, and to resource ourselves, means we can be happier and do our work as parents better. We need to keep our cups topped up over time, so we can be ready, particularly for these harder moments that our children bring to us. And making my children's feelings a priority doesn't mean that I never get anything done either! But keeping my children's emotional wellbeing in the front of my mind does mean that I can make an active choice in any moment about what I want to focus on. The chores can nearly always wait; our children's feelings cannot. So I'll keep working at putting them right up there on the list - and the happy by-product is that the more they feel listened to - the more of their carried hurt they can shed - then the more content they are to play independently, or maybe even work with me to get things done. Which definitely feels like a win-win situation!
*I have a number of ways which help me with letting go of how hard things can be as a parent, but my starting point and constant mainstay is Hand in Hand Parenting's tool of Listening Partnerships - you can find out more about those here.