My body still warm from sleep, I stand in the kitchen in pajamas and bare feet. Eyes half-heartedly fight to stay open and I grab two pieces of bread as if on autopilot. The butter knife chills my hand and sends a prickle over both shoulders. I dip it into peanut butter, slather, and even though I’m barely awake, I’m overcome with a familiar feeling.
Yesterday, the same feeling came after pulling wet laundry out of the washer, in that short moment right before I shoved it into the dryer. The day before that, while re-filling a glass of milk. Before that? Mid-grab of a handful of clean spoons from the dishwasher.
Tomorrow? Who knows. It might come while I pick up a random sock in the hallway, turn off a bedroom light, or while writing bananas on a grocery list. It doesn’t even matter; I just know it will accompany an annoyingly repetitive task, one that’s a part of a seemingly eternal cycle of needing/gathering/cleaning/buying/providing/using/putting away or making -- any the things I do to take care of my family.
It’s a feeling I can't name exactly. It teeters on a sharp edge of futility. Flirts with despair. Connects in a fine line with overwhelm, occasionally resignation, and (on my best days) acceptance. At particularly rough moments, it’s met with anger.
This morning, I finish making my daughter’s lunch and the feeling passes with resignation. Another lunch, another day. I don’t really mind making her a sandwich. I’m glad to do it, actually. And I don’t really mind doing the laundry, especially now that the older kids help out with these kinds of chores.
None of the individual tasks required to keep this family’s train on the right track bothers me. Not in and of themselves, at least.
But as a whole? Cumulatively? Repetitively? Over years and years and years?
That’s a different story.
My daughter thanks me for the sandwich, packs it into her lunch bag, and just like every other morning of her life, I give her a kiss, a hug, and say “I love you.”
With a quiet, “Bye mom,” she grabs her backpack and heads out the door to catch the bus.
A while back, my husband and I sat in mixed company around a table and I dramatically lamented my inability to stay on top of any/all of the tedious and inescapable work necessary for the wellbeing of our children.
“In our house, we call those recurring non-negotiables,” one of the guys said.
“I’m sorry. What?” I asked.
It’s a business term, he explained. Or at least that’s what he calls them in his business: repetitive tasks or recurring purchases that feel insignificant on their own but are essential to the success of the whole endeavor. Recurring non-negotiables feel easy to put off, but they need to be done on a regular basis. It’s best if you just accept it and build time into your schedule (or money into your budget) for them.
“Okay,” I said. “I like this idea. Go on.”
In the workplace, recurring non-negotiables could be emails or returning client phone calls; buying printer paper, toilet paper, or attending the planning meeting every Monday morning. It’s the maintenance work. The prep work. The necessary but mundane work.
At home? Same idea. Laundry. Wiping counters. Sweeping floors. Also email. Also phone calls. Also toilet paper.
As my business friend explained it, whether we’re talking about parenting or paid work, it’s natural to want the highlights. We want the finished product, the paycheck, the accomplishment, the award. We want to go to the important meeting and manage a critical situation. At home, we love our special outings, birthdays, Christmas, and the big vacation. We love throwing a party and buying their first bike. Eventually, though, someone will need to change the roll of toilet paper.
The only problem? In this season of life, every day feels like one big long recurring non-negotiable.
So here we are. A new year has started. Part of my plan for the year is to address my recurring non-negotiables and give them the time and space they require.
I’ve sat down with my planner and evaluated what works for us (me cooking most nights) and what doesn’t (cleaning on an as-needed-only basis). Moving forward, Sundays are a good day for me to meal plan; I’ll no longer try to go through paperwork on Mondays (too busy) but think Thursday will probably work. I still can’t decide if I’m going to delegate all the laundry to the two oldest kids, or have the entire family participate in one marathon session each week. Bottom line: I’m going to crush my recurring non-negotiables this year. And everyone will have a drawer full of clean underwear.
My daughter returns home from school in the afternoon and drops her book bag with an overwhelmed sigh.
“Hi. What’s wrong?” I ask. I’m at the counter in front of the microwave. It’s almost 3 p.m. and I’m waiting for a cold cup of coffee to heat up.
“Everything,” she says. Water spilled on her on the ride home, she forgot her coat at school, and there was one other very dramatic thing (but she couldn’t remember what it was).
I open the microwave and grab the hot mug. Right then, with one hand on the counter and the other outstretched, my daughter comes up behind me and wraps her arms around my waist and buries her face into my back. I freeze: don’t spill the coffee.
The morning’s jar of peanut butter is still out on the counter, a growing pile of papers I keep telling myself I’m going to look through (tomorrow) lays off to our right, dishes from the day lounge in the sink.
While she gives me this awkward backward hug, I slowly put the mug down and press my arms down on top of hers. We stand there, both of us holding and being held, until she lets go.
“I’m gonna go do homework,” she says, picking up her bag again before walking to her bedroom. I stand there, warm and soft and acutely aware of the preciousness of the previous moment.
I pick up the mug, and the recurring non-negotiable feeling comes to me again.
Except it’s different now.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been focusing on the wrong things.
What if recurring non-negotiables aren’t the housework?
Or the incessant food making?
Or the tedious sock matching?
Maybe the thing that is repetitive and ongoing, the only truly important part of life that is necessary for our kids to thrive as they grow is simply … us.
May the love we embody for our children, in all the various ways we show it and through the million little things we do, be the one and only recurring non-negotiable that really matters.