This weekend my family and I went away on a retreat to the mountains with a number of other families with young children. We had all been encouraged to leave our cell phones off, and I was happy to comply. It was easy to do because I wasn’t worried about getting things done or making plans for the weekend; my “job” while we were there was to hang out with my family and friends and take care of my kids.
The time away reminded me of a valuable parenting lesson: in order to be present with my children and tuned in to them (as well as myself), I need to find ways to turn off my mental list of everything I “need” to get done, if only for a few minutes at a time. It’s so easy and tempting to respond to one last work email, unload the dishwasher, answer the phone, put one more load of laundry in, or sort the mail. Look at me! I’m being productive!
But at what expense? At the expense of quality time connecting with my children? Sadly, the answer at times is yes. Now, certainly, I can’t give my kids 100% of my attention 100% of the time; it’s not good for them and it’s not good for me. They need to learn to play alone and navigate conflicts without Mommy stepping in constantly, and my sanity and career would go down the drain and our house would end up looking like a bomb hit it after about 24 hours. The key here is balance.
The question is what exactly do we “need” to get done? In the days before I had children, the answer was everything. I needed to check off every task on my to-do list, whether it was for work or taking care of our home or my personal health or connecting with family or whatever else I was working on at the time. After my daughters were born, my to-do list got even longer: do all of those things AND buy diapers and wipes and make pediatrician appointments and read the latest parenting book and sign up for music classes and sort out the baby clothes that don’t fit anymore and figure out when I should feed her peanuts for the first time and research jogging strollers and don’t forget to actually jog… and the list goes on and on and on.
Somehow, my most important task—to just be with my girls—never made it on my mental to-do list. It still happens, of course, I pay attention to my children every day, but some days it feels like that quiet time spent reading a book together or snuggling on the couch or building Lego towers gets crammed in between all of the other things I feel like I actually “need” to do. And when I do look back on those beautiful days or hours spent playing with my girls, I feel torn between the happiness of having connected with them and the stress I feel about not getting enough done.
Other mothers have been noticing this too, and reflecting on it in beautiful ways. In a blog post titled Unproductively Productive, The Orange Rhino notes:
I still struggle to accept that a “productive” day can mean that I got nothing done but played Battleship with my oldest and lost, soothed my tantruming three year old, listened to a long winded story about how cicadas make babies by my five year old, or fell asleep with my sweet two year old in his rocking chair.
And in her amazing book, Momma Zen, Karen Maezen Miller writes:
The day breaks and I create an agenda. It may not appear to be self-serving, but nearly all of it is. Between the items that certainly need to be done are so many that I simply want to do because I think doing them will make me feel better, more worthy or productive. Accomplishing them gives me a sense of control against the chaos. These are false feelings, and fleeting. If I were more highly evolved I would know that everything is perfect as it is whether or not I empty the dishwasher. There is nothing wrong with wanting to empty the dishwasher. But how far will I carry this flag into the fury of the fight? Some days, very far.
It’s all about finding the balance, which requires attention and constant shifting and recalibrating. We need time each day to accomplish things, and we also need time each day to just be—with ourselves, and with our children. Some days I feel like I get it right, and other days, well, not so much. After a great weekend away with my kids, during which time I was totally focused on them, I feel a need to tend to the unpacking, the laundry, the dishes, and my writing while they’re at daycare. This afternoon, I will find some more time to be present with them, but when I go to make dinner, they’ll be on their own for a little while.
Maybe tonight, though, I’ll leave the dishwasher for after the girls go to sleep so I can play baby dolls with them. That might just be a more important task on my to-do list.