Being perpetually busy is a strange state of being. Like most working parents, there is always an epically long to-do list lurking somewhere at the back of my mind. The etymology of the word busy reveals something about the state of being busy. The word ‘busy’ comes from the Middle English word ‘bisig’, which at the time also meant being anxious.
Nowadays, working parents are the norm. We are proud to be busy and productive members of society, juggling kids, careers, housework, exercise, hobbies, caring for relatives, spending time with friends and managing active leisure lives for ourselves and our kids. We are people who get things done. We are also nowadays permanently connected to work, friends and family by technology. I imagine the agrarian people of the Middle Ages would look upon us with pity, seeing us as unduly anxious people, running around incessantly, flitting distractedly from one task to the next.
Couples usually divide responsibilities into their areas of specialisation. My wife is typically the go-to person for kids’ birthday parties, food shopping and such things. I’ll tend to look after maintaining the garden, cars and property. Yet there is much cross-over and we both share the responsibilities for everything. Sometimes, I’ll be taking the kids to a birthday party, while she is taking the car in to have its brake pads replaced. As my wife often works nights and weekends, we have never had a sacred time in the week, kept apart just for family and relaxation. The families of doctors, nurses and emergency service workers find themselves inevitably in breach of the ancient injunction to keep aside a day of rest.
With four kids under 10, the pace and intensity of our busyness is comical at times. Yet it’s also lovely to have so much happening each day, for us and for the kids. As well as the daily routine of dressing kids and preparing meals – and then scraping the resulting mess from the plates, walls, floors and even ceilings – there are also parties, family gatherings, trips to the beach and trips away.
In proportion to their age, we involve the kids in the day-to-day work of keeping the show on the road, whether that means sweeping the floor, helping with the washing up, or doing some gardening. They learn a lot through this. They play a role in keeping the family afloat, and become a productive part of the unit. They learn the satisfaction of doing work, and of helping others. It’s not all housework. The older kids can really help by playing with their baby sister, making her laugh while I make dinner. Often, they will read a story to their four-year-old sister, who adores books but can’t yet read. They learn to care for others, and that there’s joy in doing so.
Yet it’s really important to keep the right balance for the kids. They must remain primarily kids, free to mess about, play, read and daydream. Even we adults deserve some time to take it easy too, fleeting moments to forget about the ever-present to-do list. Sometimes, there’s a welcome hour to read, thanks to a delayed train. Sometimes, there’s a tranquil spell in the evenings when all the kids have miraculously fallen asleep on time and the laundry is done. Sometimes, there’s an hour on Saturday mornings when everyone is at gymnastics or soccer or whatever is in the schedule that day. Then I can tune up my guitar, brew some coffee, and for an hour become lost in music. This reverie is broken when the kids and their attendant chaos tumble back in the door, but I smile to see them.
Then I think they are the reverie, this past decade, with all the drop offs, pick-ups, playdates, lost shoes, teeth-brushing, laughter, nappies, sleepless nights and all the rest of it which has combined to make these years with them a happy blur. And then I understand why being busy doesn’t have to mean being anxious these days. Perhaps the trick is learning to be happy-busy – content and warm-hearted amid the chaos.