Ignore My Previous Parenting Advice
In a previous article, I advocated finding one tiny thing every day to look forward to. I did so assuming that life is mostly difficult and many hours of every day are spent doing painful, tedious or distasteful tasks. I’m a stay-at-home mother, so I'm thinking primarily of dishes, laundry and holding kids' heads while they puke. The way to make this sort of life function, I argued, is to spend time away from all that, doing something that you like better. That tiny amount of fun, I wagered, would make the sucky parts of life sustainable.
Well, it's decent advice for starters. But it's not enough.
I decided this last week when my kids got sick, one after the other, and my job turned into vomit manager. With the crying and the laundry and the house falling to chaos around me, a 40-minute exercise break didn't feel like enough to cover it. So I posed the question to my parenting email group, "There are just so many hours where you don't get to choose how to spend them. Is there a way to live through them that's not straight-up suffering?"
"I've been asking myself these questions pretty much daily for the last 9 years, 1 month, and 18 days," says my friend Lydia—an amount of time that corresponds to the age of her oldest child.
"There's a power in realizing we don't choose," my friend Val replies, "and then trying to enjoy as much of it as possible."
My friend Mary also attests to the power of simply understanding we don't get to choose how to spend our time. "Just the realization that most of my time is actually out of my control lifts the burden of needing to control it and 'get it all done,'" she says.
This seems like wise advice from women who have dealt with their share of stomach bugs. Maybe part of my problem is I believe I can control my life through my own strategies. I believe I can carefully change the inputs the way I would vary ingredients in a recipe, until I reach some perfect balance of yummy happiness. But parenting is not a recipe and my children are not ingredients. They are people with illnesses and needs and wills beyond my control.
So my first step when I'm not enjoying the moment seems to be to take a deep breath and say, "I don't have control." I say it internally, because that's not something I want my kids to hear. Then I do the thing that needs doing like wash the cup and hand over the hydrating juice. I keep breathing when the child starts screaming Noooooooo, he wanted juice in the blue cup!
That's step one for me. The next step is trying, as Val said, " to enjoy as much of it as possible." How do you make that happen?
Here a dad chimed in to our discussion. My friend Brian writes that when he tried to become a father who could love his daughter more fully, "mindfulness and living in the present moment seemed to be something that could be helpful." What is mindfulness, according to Brian? "Practicing being in the present. Noticing the sounds and sights going on around you. Being aware of how you are feeling in any given moment."
Indeed, there's often something pleasant I'm missing because I'm thinking of something more gratifying I could be doing. Is there anything nice to notice when I'm holding a sick child? Well, I'm holding one right now, actually. Let's see . . . I like that he's warm and snuggly. I like that his hair feels soft against my cheek. I like that at four months old he has no existential problems—he simply feels crappy and needs to be touching his mama.
When I finally get to the chores I have scheduled, let's see if I can't bring a little mindfulness and find something to enjoy. Laundry and dishes are also warm, so there’s tactile pleasantness there. Having a clean house is pleasant too. And when my kids interrupt me, I'll just look them in the eyes and say, "Your needs are valuable and I appreciate spending this moment with you."
But not out loud, because that'd be weird and they're waiting for their apple juice.