At What Cost?

My last post – The Antidote – linked to a post at the blog Hands Free Mama which was about the journey of letting go of the perfectionist’s desire to do it all for the sake of, paradoxically, having more.

In today’s post I want to make an important acknowledgement: there is a cost.

There is a cost to having more of something. That cost is having less of something else.

Australian currency

There is a cost to having more of something. That cost is having less of something else.

If you want to have more chocolote, you have to be prepared to have less money and, depending on how much more chocolate you intend to have, perhaps a less healthy figure.

Stating the blindingly obvious, right? Well, there is an aspect that may not be so obvious.

Falling short

As a parent of young children, I am often reminded by friends with children who have long since grown up and left home of how short and precious childhood is. I am appreciative of those reminders. A little sadly, that reminder is sometimes accompanied by a lament: “I wish I had spent more time with my children when I had the chance.” The 1974 song Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin tells the same story:

When my son turned ten just the other day
Said, “Thanks for the ball, dad, come on and let’s play
Can you teach me to throw?” I said, “Not today
I got a lot to do” he said, “That’s okay”

And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
Said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know, I’m gonna be like him”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when
We’ll get together then, son, you know we’ll have a good time then”

Chapin has said, “Frankly, this song scares me to death.” I’ve encountered many parents of grown children with guilt, and many parents of young children with anxiety, about not spending enough time with their children.

There is no shortage of people who truly value time with their children, but feel they aren’t spending the time they would like to. Why is that? If it was as simple as just “Spend more time with your children” I’m sure people would.

I use spending time with children here as an example. This can be about anything that is important to you that you feel you aren’t living up to: Studying more; loving more; giving to charity; exercising; eating well.

The obstacle is the cost. Unfortunately we often don’t even admit to ourselves that there is a cost and consequently don’t understand why our own behaviour seems to be inconsintent with our own values, and we don’t know how to fix the problem. This situation creates distress – anxiety and guilt. These negative emotions further disempower us.

What is the cost?

We can’t be sure what the exact cost was for the father in Harry Chapin’s song, but we have some clues: He tells his son, “I’ve got a lot to do,” and his son is asking him, “When you coming home, dad?” The cost for this father of teaching his son to throw his ball will be not doing some of the “a lot to do”. The cost of more time with his son will be coming home – which might require giving up a job. That could mean a job that pays less or, for some parents, it could mean unemployment. Whatever it means, there is some sort of cost.

Of course, the next question is whether the benefit of having more time with his son is worth the cost of having that time. If the cost of having that time is unemployment the father may foresee it creating other problems: Perhaps jeapordising his ability to provide his son other essentials like food and shelter or access to health care. If the cost of that time is only a reduced income, the father might decide the cost is well worth it.

But there is more to it.

The father of the child in the song may face other costs if he makes a decision to take a lower income for more time with his son. He may face intense criticism from his own father. He may be told he is making the wrong decision. His son may appreciate the extra time with his father but sometimes feel angry that they can’t afford some of the luxuries they used to have.

Expense management

If we don’t acknowledge the costs of our choices a likely consequence is guilt. If he hasn’t recognised that criticism from others may be one of the costs, then in the face of criticism from his own father for taking a step back in his career the father in Harry Chapin’s song is likely to feel guilty about his decision. He is likely to believe he should have been able to both continue in the career he had and be present for his son.

Perfectionists are particularly prone to such guilt. A perfectionist believes they should be capable of doing everything. The perfectionist strives to be the ideal father – he compares himself to that man he knows who spends most of every weekend doing activities with his children. He strives to be the ideal employee – he compares himself to a colleague who does lots of unpaid overtime and never takes sick leave. He strives to be the ideal husband – he compares himself to a friend who takes his wife out for dinner and dancing every week. He strives to be the ideal handyman – he compares himself to the neighbour who is renovating his home himself to an impeccable standard.

He fails to notice that the father he compares himself to has a passive income that leaves him with lots of free time and ample financial resources.

He fails to notice that the colleague he compares himself to is a single man ten years younger than him.

He fails to notice that his friend and his wife have no children and low-demand careers.

He fails to notice that his neighbour is a retired builder.

If you decide to let go of trying to “do it all” it is essential to acknowledge the cost: Not everything will get done. Not only that, someone might criticise you for it. However, if you have factored this into your expenses it won’t take you by surprise, and it is less likely to create guilt: because you decided the cost was worth it.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

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