The 80% Mom

One thing you said haunts me still. When I asked about motherhood, you said that children don’t need as much as you gave. “Eighty percent is probably plenty.” I was shocked by your words. Did you regret having given so much of yourself? Now, those words seem like a gift. A way of offering me a model of motherhood, beyond even your own example.

I first read this about a year ago and it really struck home. It comes from an open letter by Karin Cook to her mom who had passed away from cancer many years before.

Like many high achievers, I treated parenting as yet another to-do list. But to my frustration, the care and nurturing of children is a Sisyphean task. Tasks that are completed don’t stay done. They only need to be done again the next day. And the set of possible tasks is open-ended, so a mom can always do more.

So the idea that I could do only 80% and still be a good mom was revelatory and liberating. Rather than trying to do it “all”, my goal became to not do too much. Eighty percent would be an ‘A’ grade at school, which is enough for any child.

There are three main benefits to doing “only” 80%. The first is you are forced to think about what’s really important. When trying to do everything, it’s easy to lose perspective and not apply any judgements or filters to what needs to be done. By doing less, you’re required to make more thoughtful choices about how to spend your energy.

The second is raising children who will become independent, self-sufficient adults. The more that you do for a child, the less that s/he does for her/himself. As a result a learning opportunity is lost. Having a child take on responsibilities is empowering and beneficial for the entire family. There’s extra work in the beginning, but the payoff comes surprisingly quickly, especially if you have multiple kids.

The third is doing more by doing less. You’ve probably heard of “quality time.” Unfortunately, the way that concept used most of the time is bunk. Too often, a special treat or an occasion is used to assuage a parent’s guilt for not spending enough time with their kids. This doesn’t work and leads to spoiled children. Quality time is not a substitute for quantity time. Increase the quality of the time, by being fully present with your children.

So here’s how the 80% mom method works.

  1. Make a list of all the things that you think you should be doing today.
  2. Remove 20% of them.
  3. Use the remainder as your new to-do list.

The method is that simple, if you know how. The how comes in how you make decisions. You can use this approach with other aspects of your life, but for now we’re focusing on parenting.

What goes on the to do list?

The to-do list that you start with should contain only enough items to fill the time available. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, then your list will reflect this. The same goes for work-outside-the-home moms. It will take some practice to figure out what can be done each day, with no late nights and no leftover items for the next day.

What to remove?

For each item, assign a priority and a cost. Do the high priority, low cost items. Avoid the low priority, high cost items.

Priority is based on how much value it brings to your family. Value can be measured in a way that suits your family, but it should be guided by your family’s goals. Your goals could be happiness, athletic achievement, welcoming, friendliness, etc.

Cost isn’t just about money. It’s also about time, effort, and annoyance. All of these factors exact a toll on you, so they should be counted.

Don’t do things that aren’t important or increase value. (Be sure to distinguish between important and urgent.) Don’t do things that are annoying to you.

With criteria such as priority and cost in mind, items that previously had to be done are now negotiable. Let’s take the dreaded homework as an example. Homework has its place. It reinforces lessons from school and teaches a child responsibility and persistence. But there may be other lessons that you want to teach your kids at home, and some nights you might choose to take your kids to a cultural or sporting event instead. Let your family’s values drive the agenda.

What to do with your 20% time?

Under no circumstances must you add more items to the to-do list. Spend the 20% time doing the remaining items better. Treat it as mental space to think and to breathe. Use the extra few minutes that you have really looking at your child’s art or helping them with a task. Do the same thing, but do it better. Don’t cut corners.

Use the 20% as me time. You earned it through your smart planning. Use the time that you have freed up for yourself, in whatever way you desire. Read a trashy novel. Go workout. Have tea with a friend. Watch a movie. Look after yourself, and come back with new energy to face the ankle-biters.

Being an 80% mom is not a magic solution. Nothing is. It’s more of an attitude. It’s about being satisfied with your efforts. It’s about being satisfied with yourself. It’s about focusing on what’s important. It’s about doing enough, but not too much. It’s about respecting yourself, and your children, as whole persons. It’s about taking pleasure in the everyday.

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