Friday, September 09, 2011

Parenting While Distracted

The beginning of school brought with it the typical To Do List -- uniforms to pull together, shoes to try on, last appointments to schedule. We packed a ton of fun into the final weeks of summer -- trips to the zoo and to a state park, inviting friends for Settlers of Cattan and bowling. But duty eventually called. One morning I faced a host of  mundane and fairly tedious tasks. I promised the kids a trip to the pool once my phone calls were done, and their chores were completed.

And then I reached answering machine after answering machine. And a rather urgent doctor's visit couldn't be scheduled for months. So I tried another doctor and then another and then I called a friend for a second opinion. Suddenly the whole crew was quarreling. Ainsley got into a stack of post-it notes and was standing on the counter. Assigned chores were going nowhere fast.

The kids needed attention and redirection. This was the perfect time to set aside the phone, regroup, get the little people engaged into more productive play -- in short, to invest the few minutes required to get us back on track. Instead, I did just the opposite. I'll get this all done twice as fast! I pressed forward, phone glued to my ear.

I had hoped to get to the pool in the neighborhood of 10:00 - 11:00, but suddenly it was 12:30. The middle boys were going at it, the baby was crying, the chores were holding steady at half-done. My To Do List was progressing no faster than the chores.

I was parenting while distracted, and the results were predictable.

Life, of course, is full of distractions -- both those chosen and those unavoidable.  Sadly, I suspect I am a tad more prone to distraction than the average person. Sometimes I should be doing one thing, but freely choose to turn my attention toward a slew of items that only take a minute:

That splash park just opened. Wouldn't that be fun! Let me Google that ... It will only take a minute.

I meant to print out a few handwriting exercises ... It will only take a minute.

Where's that recipe for blueberry crisp? I'll look it up ... It will only take a minute.

I should upload those photos ... It will only take a minute.

Gosh, this drawer's a mess. I'll just give it a quick straighten ... It will only take minute.

There's not a thing wrong with any of this ... unless I'm doing it chronically and at the expense of more important things. We live in the Age of Distraction. It's a noisy, often blaring world full of  diversions that vie for our attention like Arnold Horshack in a re-run of Welcome Back, Kotter. Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!

We also have both the blessing and the curse of living in the Age of Information. There is no tidbit too arcane to find. Want the transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial? They're just a few keystrokes away, and it will only take a minute. The ten-day weather forecast in Tripoli? Not a problem, and it will only take a minute. We live in the Age of Convenience. Except for the DMV, we don't wait for much. Rice, mashed potatoes, Ramen noodles? Only a minute!

I am reminded of comedian Steven Wright who once deadpanned, "I put my instant coffee into a microwave oven and went back in time."

In my life only a minute eventually takes a toll. Constant distraction exacts a heavy price. Parenting while distracted is netiher enjoyable nor efficient in the long run.

Should children learn to entertain themselves, complete assigned chores without a parent hovering, give Mom the space to make needed phone calls or -- now, this one's a stretch -- go to the bathroom uninterrupted? The answer is an unequivocal Yes! But I believe, just as wholeheartedly, that some of the issues with one child in particular crop up when he gets too little attention, not too much. I'm reminded of a line from Rachel Balducci's book How Do You Tuck in a Superhero?. "For our family," she writes, "doing nothing often leads to nothing good."

So true!

The morning I'm describing was chock full of items that truly were unavoidable. I've always loved La Leche League's expression "People before things." But these people really do require things. I hadn't spent the morning dithering on the Internet, alphabetizing my spice cabinet, or doing my nails. Mothers multi-task because we have to. The work is never done.

But you know what? The work is never done. Never done. So, really, why not go the pool?

I accomplished a few essentials and then dropped it all and to the pool we went.  We had a great time, easily the best trip to the pool we've enjoyed all summer. The older boys played games together with a minimal amount of arguing. They fetched John's torpedo again and again without complaint. John tried out his halting swim strokes and did his amazing flips off the side of the pool. Ainsley chortled with delight at the new float I pulled out. When we arrived home, John and Ainsley conked out for naps. I played Uno with the older boys.

No phone calls, no emails, no transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc.

I eventually hit The Great To Do List once more -- refreshed by our swim, heartened by time fully invested in my favorite people.


Anonymous said...

How true. "Convenience" - in the form of the internet, or shops being open late - so often drives us, rather than the other way around. But as you say, people need things.

And: transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc? Interesting!

Kelly said...

No matter how much convenience we invent, we still have a mere 24 hours in a day. Haven't figured out a way around this one yet.

Beth said...

Your post is so true, and yet, I've also had the experience where I put if off and "go to the pool" only to pay for it later. Last weekend, I worked super hard on Saturday so that sunday could be dedicated to being a family day. By Sunday evening though, I was nauseated working to get everything ready for the coming week--lunches, laying out clothes, getting paperwork together to stick in the mail, etc. These are all little things-- and they are constantly there. I want to sit back and enjoy relationships, and yet can't get rid of the overwhelmed feeling that occurs after a break. I really like your perspective, and your list of "one minute" activities. I could make a very similar list. I guess the first step is just tobe mindful when prioritizing which task to do to use up your "one minute"

Kelly said...

Beth - Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Being intentional -- making concrete choices rather than being pushed by the next urgent tasks -- is helpful to me.

I really do understand the ever-present work. A day at the lake means a lot of effort later. Vacations take on a new reality when you're the mom.

A daily struggle, this.