My wife is leaving for a conference tomorrow. The next five days will be the longest stretch of time I’ve spent taking care of our twin, almost-4-year-old daughters without any backup.
If you’re picturing my wife typing out lists of instructions for the care and feeding of our children, drilling me on the days and times of all their activities, and stocking the freezer with elaborate meals to sustain them through her absence, you’re thinking about a different family. I do the bulk of the child care in our home, and I like to keep it so simple that even if I screwed it up, no one would really notice. To say that my stripped-down parenting style is because of my gender would be an oversimplification. But after reading a new book about improving the quality of family life by dialing down parental intensity, I’m inclined to think that it does play a role.
I’ve been a stay-at-home (mostly) dad since my wife went back to work when the girls were 4 months old. In the first year, I read a few books about child development, sleep training and parenting styles, but as the girls grew up happy and healthy, and as I got the hang of things, I stopped reading. Nowadays, I stick to parenting blogs and articles that celebrate the unleashing of a child’s imagination by providing plenty of unstructured playtime, and roll my eyes at photo spreads of extravagant parties and toys and the humblebrags of parents who are exhausted and stressed from shuttling their children to various “enrichment” activities.
Despite my dwindling interest in parenting manuals, I couldn’t resist a new release with a title that I felt encapsulated my child-rearing philosophy. Like most people, I enjoy reading books that support my own beliefs, and that’s why I stayed up late to greedily devour “Minimalist Parenting” by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest, frequently nodding in agreement and exclaiming “Exactly!” to my dog (who seemed indifferent to the whole business). There’s nothing like being told that you’re doing it right.
The theoretical foundation of “Minimalist Parenting” is what I would refer to as “my way”:
Living a joyous life that’s in line with your values (instead of some manufactured version of “successful” modern parenthood) will give your kids room to grow into the strong, unique people they are meant to be. More important, this way of being will provide a model that shows your kids how to trust their instincts as they move toward independence and adulthood.
There is quite a bit of preaching (to the choir, in my case) the gospel of rejecting the shame, guilt and stress that many parents develop in trying to provide the latest and “best” of everything for their children. What’s more important than keeping up with parenting trends, Ms. Koh and Ms. Dornfest argue, is to “edit” or “minimalize” your schedule, adjust your expectations, roll with the punches, and create space in your family’s life for joy and fun.
For me, this book was not merely a gratifying confirmation of my own parenting instincts. In addition to the philosophical content, “Minimalist Parenting” offers a wealth of practical suggestions on how to achieve (or approach, anyway) this state of enlightened parenting. They don’t sugarcoat it either: there is work involved.
As disappointed as I was to learn that I couldn’t just cruise through the rest of my tenure as a father by being laid-back and scoffing at those who over-parent, I eventually found comfort in reading some of the tips on how to get the work done so there’s more time for fun. There are scores of strategies laid out in the book, covering everything from family finances, to clutter mitigation and birthday parties, but it was their advice on lunchboxes and leftovers that proved balm to my soul: my girls’ wonderful preschool provides all their food on the two days a week they spend there, but soon they’ll be big, brown-bagging kindergardeners, and I needed to hear that the new task could fit into our old routines.
While reading “Minimalist Parenting,” I (perhaps subconsciously) appreciated that it used inclusive language when addressing or referring to its audience. I’m so used to “Mom” being the default term for the primary caregiver that I hardly notice it anymore. It was refreshing to note that Ms. Koh and Ms. Dornfest mostly use the words “parent” and “partner” instead of “Mom” and “husband” when discussing family dynamics. Nonetheless, when they described the binds that parents get themselves and their children into when they try to be “perfect,” I didn’t picture any of my dad friends.
Through blogging and simply being a mostly stay-at-home dad, I am in contact with lots of fathers (and mothers) who are very involved in their children’s care. I do know a number of overzealous dads and free-range moms, but they are in the minority. I thought of my dad friends while reading the chapters that Ms. Koh and Ms. Dornfest dedicate to simplifying mealtimes and celebrations. “Simplified” is just the way most of us roll.
A quick meal of raw vegetables, pasta, simply cooked meats or other protein? Done. Don’t worry about themed holiday classroom celebrations? Never been a problem. Simplified birthdays? Last year, for my girls, I planned atransportation-themed birthday adventure. We took the trolley downtown (San Diego, that is), hopped on a ferry to the town of Coronado, ate lunch, rode around in a pedal-powered surrey, and then ferried and trolleyed back home, stopping for cupcakes on the way. The expense was negligible compared to a party, the planning took about half an hour, the children had a blast, and Mom and Dad were happy and relaxed. Just the kind of thing you might read about in “Minimalist Parenting.”
In the final chapter of the book, “YOU, Minimalist You!,” the gender neutrality dissolved. Suddenly, “motherhood” replaced “parenthood” as in, “there are real cultural associations between motherhood and martyrdom,” and the chapter went on to offer advice on topics like yoga pants and makeup. I don’t need that advice, but its appearance underlined the way the book read like a cheering section for me and my “manimalist” style but probably reads as the advice it’s intended to be for others.
Men are socialized toward minimalist parenting (and nearly everything else). Women are more likely to struggle to shed the burdens of the “cultural associations” that compel them to pursue unattainable parenting standards. “Minimalist Parenting” is a pushback against parenting expectations for women and maybe a push toward the more relaxed standards that exist for men. And to me, as far as gender roles are concerned, movement toward the middle is progress.