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Five Ways to Stay Present and Appreciate Your Kids

Anyone close to a serious life's tragedy, will tell you to treasure every second you have with your loved ones. Here are some tips on how to attain that same level of appreciation for your children, even when not facing loss.

The days are long but the years are short” 

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.

Katrina Young March 23, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Abi - Thank you for the always important and never ending reminder to be present and enjoy whatever stage you are in (especially parents of young children).They grow up so fast. Perspective has been on my mind recently. Thank you for providing me with another slant.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty March 25, 2012 at 04:53 AM
Thank you so much for reading...and appreciating, Katrina!
Kristi G March 26, 2012 at 02:50 PM
Great reminders to appreciate the daily moments with family, and some nice new ideas for doing so. I love the notion of "putting love into" a frustrating or mundane task in order to have a new attitude towards it. Thanks for the article!
Crystal March 26, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Another great parenting article by Abi Cotler O'Roarty. I swear, it's like you have a window into my life! Over the weekend I had a terrible "mommy and me" restaurant experience with my toddler. After the "meal" I felt like I'd had the most intense and mental workout of my life....chase, play, "mommy up!", stop, don't, and the dreaded "NO!!" Thank you for giving me perspective and reminding me to always look for the sunny side of things.
Jeni Reynolds March 26, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Great ideas! I have a 18 week year old and I'm told by friends every day to 'appreciate this time' but it is so hard to live in this moment fully when I'm deprived of sleep and sometime my sanity. I often wish we could live in retrospect, since I know a year or two from now I will miss this time. Thanks again for the great post.
Ryan March 27, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Great stuff as always, Ab. I wanted to point out that, in addition to the "stay-at-home moms" you always reference, there are also a few "stay-at-home DADS" who read your stuff. Well, at least this one does. It would be interesting to know if others do to, as sometimes I feel pretty unique in this early child-rearing phase of life. I know I'm not alone, but most of the stuff I see/hear/read is geared toward mothers. I know I feel the same way about a lot of these things you talk about, and I just wanted to say that I also feel blessed to have to deal with the ups and downs of raising a toddler. Yes, there are times when she pushes me to my limits, but 90% of our time together is an amazing learning experience for us both. Our economy and our culture are both major contributors to the spot I find myself in today. Sometimes I'm concerned, depressed, and resentful that I'm not the bread-winner. Then I realize that the time I get to share with the little rascal cannot, and will not, ever happen again. Nor can the memories and experiences be replaced. And it's in these moments that I understand how lucky I am to be present in her life at this time, as well as how much I appreciate the situation.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty March 28, 2012 at 04:23 AM
Thank you Kristi, I am so grateful to have realized that. On that particular bed-making day, I really was very unhappy about my task and the "love hit" really shifted that completely.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty March 28, 2012 at 04:28 AM
Crystal, I can't tell you ho much it gratifies me to hear this. It is so hard to deal with some of these parenting moments and it's funny how just hearing that others are right there with you helps so much. Unlike the workplace, there are few conventions or staff meetings where we all can get together and share notes and empathy. I'm so glad my craziness resonates with yours:) As for your restaurant experience, I can not tell you how many times (this month:) I have been there too! And you know, even if we accept the un-sunny side of things, just knowing that someday we will even probably miss these toddler moments helps me get through.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty March 28, 2012 at 04:31 AM
I know, it's almost impossible to do sometimes. I used to get so anxious when people would tell me to raise my eldest and at the time only child as if she were my second or third so she wouldn't grow up with the usual first-child neuroses. But one day someone said, "How absurd that advice is! It's a great idea, if only it weren;t totally impossible to do." This really relieved my stress over going through the understandable and natural stages we all go through. Sleep deprivation combined with living with a willful crazy person (no matter how little!) does very little to lend itself to appreciation:)
Abi Cotler O'Roarty March 28, 2012 at 04:37 AM
Thanks for the reminder Ryan. I often do try to talk about stay-at-home parents rather than moms, although my book-club is all moms so I slipped into that here (care to join??). I do think you're really lucky to have a bond that is there and natural to most moms, wherever they work, but not always so close for dads. What a precious gift! I wonder too if other dads read my stuff...actually I sometimes have male friends who aren't even parents say they appreciate it because they can relate what I write about to their own lives (like this piece) and are also just fundamentally interested in child-rearing because it's what creates future fellow adults. I love this idea because it is so easy to judge parenting form the outside, without really knowing what it is really like and requires-- I used to do this all the time, even though I nannied. If I could change just one person's mind about notions like the idea that parents of a child throwing a tantrum are indulgent, I'll sleep well at night:)
pia kelley September 30, 2012 at 04:33 AM
I absolutely loved the article, having recently gone through a tragedy in the family,I must say that it feels good to remember what is really important. Those little moments we share with our littles ones are so precious and sometimes easily dismissed. I have to train myself to just stop and breathe a little calmer and enjoy those moments. Thanks for your inspiring words. Patty
Abi Cotler O'Roarty September 30, 2012 at 08:58 PM
Thank you so very much Patty, it means a lot to hear that after you've been through something so hard, you took something from what I've written. I bet you are in an awesome place for appreciation now. But I'm sorry for your loss and hope things are going well for you and yours now.

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