Recently I a discussion my book club had about how to live a happier life according to Gretchen Rubin’s, The Happiness Project. Our favorite quote from the book is above. As moms of small children this quote means trying harder to stay present through all the daily trials of raising kids. Because, even though we may secretly roll our eyes when strangers tell us how fast it all goes, we can quickly see just how right they are.
Around the time we read this book, another friend changed her entire life around after the sudden death of a friend’s 4-year-old, a playmate to her own children. She began a new routine including more time for herself and her body. Also, as you can imagine, her appreciation for everything about her children grew.
It is a basic human truth that most of us don’t stay in such a state of appreciation when not in the face of tragedy. Currently, there’s a very sick small child in our community. Last I heard, she was doing better but still in the hospital. Just the thought of what her parents and she are going through gives me chills. This is ever-present for me right now and so my ability to parent with appreciation is off the charts. The other day I found myself marveling at the size of my 2-year-old’s smooth little fingers as I dried them in a public bathroom, rather than rushing to get through the task and out of there before someone else needed to come in. I hope it lasts!
Now I wonder what I can do to elongate this ability to appreciate the days (and nights) I have with my toddler and her big sister, who is 5. Naturally, like any modern quest, I start with a Google search. The links I click on quickly lead me to remember what I’ve already learned in my life about staying present and being greatful. Let’s not forget that like many others, I spent a good deal of my 20s in yoga studios, and it wasn’t until my 30s that kids came along and I traded raising myself for raising others.
Soon, I have a combined list of what's worked for me in the past and what works for others according to the web. After a week of trying them to become a more present mom, here are the ones that actually helped:
•Gratitude Journal: Gretchen Rubin suggests keeping a one-sentence journal in an effort to chronicle topics like lessons learned, a child’s first year, or gratitude. She likes the one-sentence-a-day way of journaling because it is manageable to keep up. I used to keep an Oprah Winfrey style gratitude journal and liked it very much. So I went back to that, leaving the journal by my bedside lamp to help me remember before lights out. In it, I try to list at least five specific things that happened that day with my kids that I’m grateful for. I try to keep to specifics because the broad generalities, like: my kids are generally healthy and happy, are easy to come up with, but it’s the actual daily events that I’m more interested in, like: my daughter read her little sister an entire book three times over today.
•Turn Off: Turning off your phone, especially if it’s 'smart', is one of the easiest ways for most of us to significantly bump up our attention and focus on the present. I notice that even if I put the phone on vibrate, or in another room, I find myself checking it when I see my kids are otherwise occupied. When it is all the way powered down, I now get it through my skull that there’s no reason to go through turning it back on just to get distracted — what’s important is right in front of me.
•Post-it Up: Jot down a few ideas about what it is you’re trying to accomplish here — set the intention. Then create little reminders on note cards or post-its (best invention ever, thank you Romi and Michele!) and place the reminders around your house. Next to the bathroom mirror and by the laundry machine are good places to post. Right now, there’s a purple post-it in our bathroom that reads, “Enjoy every little breath.”
• Put Some Love Into It: One time I was making my daughter’s cumbersome bed for what felt like the fifteenth day in a row when she was having trouble with nighttime accidents. Grumpy as all get out, I suddenly found myself thinking that if I put all the love I had for her into making the bed, I would feel so much better. Instantly, I forgot that I had a graduate degree, a neck ache, and a long list of things to do that day, and I felt transcendent, some would say closer to god.
So when you find yourself cursing the eighth creative mess you’ve dealt with that day already, try putting all your love for your family into it and see if it doesn’t help let some light into the gloom.
•Planned Neglect: I once asked an octogenarian artist how he managed to produce so much art over the years. He told me about something he called “planned neglect.” He said that he had to force himself to ignore some of the household chores that needed to get done every single day in order to prioritize his art. All these years later, nothing bad has happened to him as a result of letting laundry and dishes pile — and the work he had to show for this seemed stunningly fulfilling.
As a stay-at-home mom, I find one of the biggest challenges to staying present with my kids are of the demands of the home, and being home all day with two little wrecking crews create so many of those demands, don’t they? But lately I’ve been trying to lower the standard of what I need to have done each day in order to feel that I’m taking care of my home (believe me, the bar wasn’t incredibly high to begin with). Sometimes breakfast dishes don’t get done until I am cooking dinner. Sometimes the house is not all the way picked up at the end of the day. Becoming more relaxed about domesticity has really helped me not feel like I need to constantly pull away from the present moment, whatever it holds.
As usual when I cavalierly hand out parenting advice, I caution anyone who heeds it to go easy. Try starting with just one of these things above and then perhaps switch to another if it does not do the trick for you. The last thing we want to do is worry too much about not appreciating our kids enough, because nothing makes you feel unappreciative like stress and guilt.
If you’ve already faced personal tragedy to a great degree, perhaps you don’t need these techniques. But I hope we can all start trying to live in a world where you don’t need to face down death to appreciate life — because life, after all, is the name of the game.