If I had to pick just one rule of parenting, it wouldn’t be “never wake a sleeping baby” or “just love your children enough and it will all work out.” It wouldn’t even be “there are no rules.” Rather, it would be this:
Learn how to pay attention, and what to pay attention to.
Many of us move through life assuming that we either have the ability to pay attention or we don’t, and if we don’t (or, more likely, if our energetic six year old child doesn’t) then we need to medicate ourselves (or our little one) back into paying attention.
Actually, most of us move through life without ever paying attention to whether or not we pay attention.
The reality is that paying attention is a skill we can cultivate. In fact, it is a skill we need to cultivate, especially once we become parents. Our brains just aren’t designed to pay attention to any one thing—they’re composed of about a billion little neurons, happily firing away, willy-nilly (yes, that’s a scientific term), with blatant disregard to whether or not we actually need to focus on something.
In addition, our minds are constantly scanning the environment for modern-day versions of saber-toothed tigers that might eat our babies, even in relatively safe environments. (Since I became a mother, I can spot a butter knife too close to the edge of a counter from a mile away.) To top it all off, almost everything in our lives, from smartphones that won’t stop beeping and flashing to curious kiddos who insist on peppering us with questions from the other side of the shower curtain, conspires against our ability to keep our attention on just one thing.
Most of us get through life fairly well despite the constant distractions. Sure, I dropped an entire container of blueberries this morning and my iPhone two days ago, and I end up searching for my car keys and sunglasses virtually every time I leave the house, and I think I accidentally agreed to host an end of the year pizza party for my daughter’s entire preschool because I absent-mindedly answered yes to a question I wasn’t really listening to, but really, I’m fine.
Except when I’m not. Except when my daughters are trying to talk to me about something important and I’m lost in a mental stream of worries or I’m trying to read an email or make dinner while they’re talking and I totally miss an opportunity to connect with the most important people in my life. Except when I’m exhausted and depleted and worn out and instead of paying attention to the signals my body is giving me, I end up staying up too late or eating too much crap and inevitably I get sick and no longer have a choice in how I want to spend my precious time and energy. Except when I have a million different thoughts—regrets about the past, worries about the future, frustration with whatever is happening right in front of me—and I entertain each one of those thoughts as if it really matters, and I just end up feeling confused and distracted, unsure of how to proceed.
The thing is, when I try to pay attention to everything, I can’t actually pay attention to anything. I miss out on important moments, I respond poorly to other moments, and I end up spending more time than I’d like to admit cleaning up my own messes, messes I might not have made in the first place if I’d just paid attention.
None of us are ever going to become perfect parents, but we can get better at parenting. The secret is learning what to pay attention to: sometimes it’s our children, sometimes it’s ourselves, and yes, sometimes it’s the latest episode of NCIS.
Sometimes we need to take our children’s tantrums seriously, and sometimes we just need to hang out and wait for the storm to pass. Sometimes we need to notice the anxious or angry thoughts in our minds and let them float on by, and sometimes we need to pay attention to that voice telling us that something just isn’t quite right. Sometimes we need to realize that our children need our attention, and sometimes we need to realize that we need to give ourselves some attention before we have anything at all to share with our kids.
The trick, of course, is realizing that we can, at any moment, choose what we want to pay attention to. And the trick to that is learning to pay enough attention to notice what’s happening, so we can decide whether or not whatever it is actually worth paying attention to.
Otherwise, before we know it, we’re checking a text message in the car without even realizing it and thank goodness we happened to look up at the last minute before we actually made that left turn into another car. Otherwise, we get so wrapped up in whatever sorry story we happen to be telling ourselves about how hard life is or how annoying our kids are or how stressful work can be that when our (relatively) innocent and well-intentioned child comes in to ask for a snack, we bite her little head off for no other reason than we’ve managed to work ourselves into a complete tizzy simply by paying attention to something that made us work ourselves into a complete tizzy.
And so I am learning to pay attention.
I am learning this by sitting in meditation on a regular basis, with the express purpose of following my breath and noticing when it has wandered so I can choose to come back to my breath. (For the record, that’s the point of this particular type of meditation is about—noticing when we’ve strayed and coming back, over and over again. It’s NOT about clearing your mind.) I am learning to pay attention by doing just one thing at a time, whenever I can. And I am learning it by setting aside time each day—even just a few minutes at a time—to pay as much attention as I can to my daughters and myself (not at the same time, mind you).
I have found, time and again, that when I am truly paying attention, I find a little clarity. I start to see what matters and is worthy of more attention, and what is distracting me from what really matters. I come up with more creative and compassionate responses to difficult parenting situations. The more I pay attention, the easier it is to pay attention, and the time I spend with my daughters and myself is more fun, more fulfilling, and a whole lot less stressful.