How to Parent When You Don’t Have a Lot to Give


I’ve got a toddler and a newborn, and often their needs conflict in a way that leaves me feeling stretched thin and not enough. Even when there aren’t two voices begging for my attention, and both babies are content, I sometimes feel stretched thin and not enough.

I’m parenting from the couch. All I want to do with any spare time is nap. I haven’t taken my kids outside in a few days. It’s too hard to go on fun outings right now with a baby still learning to breastfeed. I made cereal for breakfast again. My toddler’s been playing from a bunch of scattered toys on the playroom floor instead of the Pinterest activities I will someday set up. He should probably have more playdates. I’m probably depriving him by keeping him at home, but we can’t afford preschool. Have I interacted enough with the baby? She seems thrown in between all my naps and my toddler’s needs. I haven’t got around to doing that infant massage or the baby and mommy yoga video. I should probably start reading to her, or doing something to show I’m invested and interested in her beyond nursing her around the clock while I scroll through Twitter to stay awake.

Scarcity. This is a scarcity mindset. I’m not doing enough. I’m not enough. What I have, what I’m doing, this phase we’re in, it’s not enough — not enough to give my precious children what they need or deserve. I need to serve up and carve out something different, better, extra, more than what’s happening right now.

With my first, I had anxiety that I thought was normal first-time mom stuff at the time, but in anxiety-free hindsight, was a roaring mental health issue. Any time he cried or seemed bored or unhappy or not meeting the emotional equilibrium I thought children of good, attentive parents should, my anxiety latched onto this scarcity mindset, catastrophized it (“He hates me! He’ll grow up stunted! Our attachment is ruined!”), then left me too depressed to engage in the life in front of me.

It’s all adult projection. It’s my own fears about repeating any lack I experienced in my parents’ generation of parenting. It’s my own shame about not keeping up with this generation’s overly abundant parenting — all the things and activities and ways of living and being that are supposed to counteract everything that makes life hard. It’s my own misunderstanding of what children truly need, a focus on the trappings of a good, healthy, connected lifestyle while missing the substance of the good, healthy, connected lifestyle itself.

The trappings are often unattainable. I don’t always have the money or space or energy or time or talent to do many of the trappings of good parenting. I’m tired, and I’m tethered to a newborn’s needs and distracted by a toddler’s. That’s our life right now, and it feels limiting and limited when I compare it to other phases in parenting or other parenting lifestyles made possible by things I don’t have right now (mainly sleep).

But toddlers and newborns aren’t comparing, and they have nothing to compare things to. They don’t know what other parents are doing. They’re not aware of what they could be doing or having. They are perfectly content with the lives in front of them as long as those lives meet their needs. And the main thing they need from me is not to revamp our entire lifestyle or rush out of the current, not-always-awesome parenting stage I’m in, but to join them in that life. To meet them there. To see opportunities of connection in every moment, not just the planned, Pinterest-y ones.

Kids are brilliant and resilient. They can make do with a lack of resources. They engage with what’s in front of them. They can come up with games and worlds and ideas out of almost nothing. They enjoy repetition as much as novelty. They have no reference to interpret our parenting “fails” as anything else but their normal, beloved family life.

But the one thing they can’t make do without is me. They don’t need anything more or different from me; they just need me present and confident in what I currently have to offer — even if it doesn’t seem like much to me. They fill up on what I’m giving and have no idea about what I can’t give.

So I might not be able to give a ton of undivided attention to my newborn, but if I’m changing a diaper, I’m there, talking through it, counting snaps and wiggling toes, naming body parts, making eye contact, kissing bellies. And if there are screams, I’m there too, going slow but forward, empathizing.

I might not be able to muster up anything more for breakfast but cereal again, but if I’m serving cereal, I’m there, making small talk, noting the school bus out the window, or sitting in companionable silence, present and available.

We might be having a rough day where everyone is cranky and the day just won’t end, but if I’m dealing with cranky kids, I’m there with what little my frazzled self can offer — a deep breath, a hug, a kind word, or maybe just the restraint to not shame them for fussing and an apology for if I do.

It might be subzero temps outside with a tight budget that doesn’t allow for many trips to the kids’ museum, but if we’re stuck inside, I’m there with whatever we can do and are doing indoors.

I might be tired and needing to nap more than I would want to as an attentive parent, but when I’m napping, I’m there napping, and when I’m giving my children attention, I’m there giving them my attention.

Not all parenting stages are enjoyable. Not every aspect of our current lifestyle is ideal. There is always more and more and more to do or be or have, so much so that it would take hundreds of lives to fit it all in. But this is the stage, the lifestyle, the one life I have. So I’m going to be there for it, whatever it is. I’m not always going to love every second of it. I’m not going to stop bettering myself where I want and need to. But I’m not going to let a perceived scarcity crowd out what I do have to give.

I don’t need to do anything differently. I don’t need to give more. I just need to pay attention to what I am doing — to be there, to observe how it matters, to see things how my children see them, not as I am afraid they are seeing them.

When I fill in that “scarcity” with my presence and intention, it’s enough.

2 thoughts on “How to Parent When You Don’t Have a Lot to Give

  1. Aemi

    You are absolutely right and I hope you keep it in mind. I remember one day I had done little but sit on the couch while my son entertained himself, and my husband told me, “I’m so glad he has you. I would have loved to have my mom home with me when I was little.” That put things in perspective for me. I’m not doing much, but at least I’m here. At least my son can come to me when he needs me. And he’s happy.
    Also don’t forget that the newborn days are crazy! The baby will grow up and you’ll have more energy later. For now don’t be ashamed of not doing much. You just gave birth, after all!


    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, my word, what a beautiful and sweet perspective your husband has!! My mom shared with me the other day that when she was a young mom in tears over how little she accomplished, my dad encouraged her to focus on the things she DID accomplish — even if it was just nursing and comforting a newborn all day. That’s been my new reframe when I get discouraged and frustrated with my life. This stage is so difficult for me because I have enough energy that I want to “do something” that feels productive, but my children’s needs and mess-making make that impossible most of the time…and keeping up with daily maintenance and diaper changes saps what little energy I have. But I know that will change…eventually. Thank you so much for your encouragement as a more experienced mom!!


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