As we move toward Valentine’s Day, it is a good time to remember the importance of keeping all of our commitments in balance. It is easy as parents to make our children our only focus, and to forget that those commitments are not the only ones we have. We have made promises to our spouses or partners, to our employers, and to our other children. Some of us volunteer, others have to take care of elderly family members. And somewhere in all of those responsibilities we need to take care of ourselves. Prioritizing and balancing those commitments is the only way to keep all of our promises.
Of course, our children need to be a top priority, but they don’t need to be our only priority. It is a question of balance. Few of us can quit our jobs, for example, so we must balance that commitment with our commitment to our family. It is not the balance of a tightrope walker, but the balance of a juggler. Some days one commitment will temporarily take priority over another, and the next day the priority will be yet a third commitment. Some days we will be able to take off work to take our child to the doctor, and other days we will not. Children can adjust to this balance; it is in fact good for them to learn how to wait their turn.
If we have biological and stepchildren or foster children, we need to make all of them an equal priority. Treating our bonus children and our biological children equally can be challenging, because humans instinctively protect their own offspring more than others. It takes a conscious commitment and constant work to overcome that instinct. I have seen stepparents play obvious favorites and then be completely bewildered why their stepchildren stayed emotionally distant. One acquaintance took her biological son, and not her stepchildren near the same age, on an overseas work trip. Then she complained to me that her stepchildren were not friendly to her. When the marriage eventually broke up, she told me that one reason was that she just “never could gel with his children.” One can never know what happens inside another person’s marriage, but from the outside it appeared that she had made commitments to only part of her new family.
We each have to find our own rhythm for juggling our various commitments. The important principle is to be certain that our small decisions add up to the big decisions that we want to make. Our children can understand missing one dance recital, but they will stop believing us if we miss all of them. We must make sure that our children most often take priority, but not all of the time. They need to see us keeping our promises not only to them, but also to the other people in our lives.