Finding Presence in the Present Part 2

My last post was on the culture of busy we find ourselves caught up in, and the fact that we like to throw around words like balance and emotional health, but we either aren’t willing or don’t know how to make a change. Realizing the problem is half the battle I guess, but identifying successful ways to manage it is another thing entirely! No one wants to feel exhausted the moment they open their eyes in the morning, or daunted by an endless “to-do” list before the day even starts. I’m not the only one thinking about this. In fact, I’m encouraged by the whole mindfulness movement I see taking place around me. Different methods work for different people, so I’ve been spending some time thinking about what works for me, where I might make changes, and where I can bring presence into my present. Maybe my “mindful musings” will resonate with some of you?

I’ll attend to the priorities first. There are things to do. Every day. And like most of my friends, my tasks don’t just include managing myself, but managing some of the other people who live with me. So, I have to live by my calendar and lists, and I feel much more organized when I do. I admit that my list making borders on obsessive – doesn’t everyone have a monthly overview list, a weekly task list, and a daily schedule??? But I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I believe creating lists actually allows me to let some things go, temporarily at least. If something is written down, and I can’t attend to it in the moment, I know it isn’t lost or forgotten, it just needs rescheduling. Similarly, working with a calendar assures me I’m not going to miss something important, like a kid’s doctor appointment or my mother-in-law’s birthday! I can relax. My calendar will remind me.

What I am trying to reimagine is my daily time management. Rather than create an endless to-do list, I’m trying to realistically attend to my priorities first. And when I schedule my day I’m attempting to allot an amount of time to each task, and block out chunks of time for the most important things. I’ll let you know how it goes!

I’ll plan the down time and unplug. Down time has to be a priority, and I have to honor it. A few weeks ago my daughter needed to make a dish for “fiesta day” at school. Now, when my boys had to bring treats or snacks to school, I would generally hear about this at bedtime the night before, or sometimes in the morning as we were rushing to the car. But my daughter, she’s a planner. I got the recipe a week before, a gentle reminder a few days ahead, and a “mom you got the ingredients, right?” the day before. And not only is she a planner, she’s actually helpful. We work really well together in the kitchen. The day before “fiesta day” I picked up the ingredients, and, using rule #1, I actually planned the cooking time into my schedule. Because I did this, I was able to shut everything down and really be with my daughter while we cooked together, laughed, told stories, and enjoyed each other’s company. I’ve been trying to think of cooking time now as down time. It has to be done anyway, and with a glass of wine and good company, why can’t it be a time to reconnect and pay attention to one another? I even bought a new cookbook…

I will sleep on it before making a commitment to something. This one’s been really helpful. Generally, I’m the kind of person who likes to say yes to everything. Especially now, trying to get a new career off the ground, it’s really hard to refuse any work that comes my way. But not all the projects are the right ones for me, and if I let an idea percolate for a while, the right choice becomes clear. The right projects are the ones I can’t stop thinking about. They energize me, and my creativity flows around them. The others never sit quite right. I’ve learned to listen to my gut, but it requires my first answer to always be, “let me sleep on that and I’ll get back to you.”

I will laugh more. Research suggests that laughter is good for your health! Laughter not only feels good, it changes my perspective. And, while it’s really wonderful to laugh with other people, in a pinch, I’m happy to laugh all by myself. I fall out of my chair when I read those autocorrect snafus that are posted online. And I’ve recently discovered a Star Wars bloopers reel that I find absolutely hysterical. When I need to take a break, rather than fill my head with the negativity that is so pervasive in the media and online, I look for laughter and levity.

I won’t wish it away. Don’t get me wrong - I have perspective on this one. I had the stomach bug the other day and I definitely wished that shit away immediately! But I’m talking garden-variety challenges - the stress that comes from being part of a family, having a career, raising children - the day-to-day stuff that can sometimes just wear us down. For example, we have a small (ahem) construction project happening right now. It’s over budget, my yard’s torn up, my house is dirty from the work, and I’m hosting a huge party back there for two of my kids in another month - because those two kids are graduating. And then they are moving to the other side of the country.

The project will be done in a few weeks, and a few weeks after that, my household will look completely different. It’s as it should be. My older boys are following their dreams and I couldn’t be more excited for them. But I don’t want to miss out on these last few weeks with my whole family living under one roof together for the last time. If I focus on hurrying along the discomfort, I might miss the joy in the moment. And really, life’s just too short for that!

Rethinking Sibling Rivalry

When my oldest son comes home from college for a visit we are all so excited to see him, the younger children especially. It’s lovely to watch him reconnect with his teenage brother and disappear into a room to catch up, or take his youngest brother out for breakfast when no one else is up, or snuggle with his little sister on the couch for an episode of “My Little Pony.” The nature of their relationship as siblings, and as friends, shines through in these moments.

Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I need a whistle to referee their incessant bickering, but I think there is a difference between normal, we live together and get under each other’s skin type of bickering, and real discord.

I am saddened when I see young siblings display blatant disrespect for one another, and parents who chalk this up to normal “sibling rivalry.” Over time, the nastiness might reach a toxic level, and I can’t help but think these siblings won’t want much to do with each other when they have a choice later on.

So what are some ways we can consciously help our kids build healthy relationships with one another? There’s probably no magic recipe, but here are a few things we try to do in our house:

Foster a culture of respect and healthy communication between them.

The other day three of my four were just absolute monsters. One kept going into another’s room without permission to steal a coveted charger. One was constantly tattling. And the third was getting physical with the other two out of sheer frustration. I needed a megaphone never mind a whistle!

We sat them down and told them they were driving us nuts and needed to work it out. Their assignment was to go off together, acknowledge one thing they knew they were doing that was disrespectful to the others, and then offer a solution to correct the behavior. Turns out they were pretty self-aware and confessed quickly to their own part in the madness. By having them approach the situation this way, we encouraged them to take responsibility for their own actions vs. blame each other, and we didn’t allow the bad feelings to linger.

Respect and good communication skills are a cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Why shouldn’t good habits begin with siblings?

Allow them space from one another.

My sister, a girlfriend, and I had an impromptu girls’ night at my house last week. Once dinner was over I shooed my swarming children to their own rooms and told them to entertain themselves. We girls had to catch up.

My brood are used to mom and dad having date night, dad having guys’ night, mom’s book club, and numerous other events to which they are explicitly not invited. So I think it’s perfectly acceptable, necessary even, to allow them space with their own friends minus annoying sibling interruptions. If one has a play date, then I make sure the others are out of the way.

It’s also important they learn to respect each other’s personal space. It's a rule to knock before entering anyone else’s room and to ask before borrowing someone else's things.

In a family we obviously have to share, but it’s equally important we learn to respect each other's boundaries and privacy.

Require them to care for each other.

When my oldest son was fourteen, he was home babysitting while I was at dinner with some friends. About an hour in, he called to say the baby was sick (the baby was actually three and a half, but as with youngest children, she will be forever known as “the baby”). I told him I’d be right home. “No,” he said. “I’ve given her a bath and changed her pajamas. The sheets are in the laundry and I put the sleeping bag on her bed. I stayed with her until she fell asleep and she seems fine now.”

I nearly cried. Not only is this one going to make a great daddy some day, but his sister will remember the love and care she received from him, even if she doesn’t remember the exact event.

My kids certainly aren’t raising each other, but I think giving them some responsibility for one another has real value.

Cultivate a relationship with each of them as individuals.

My husband and I had a plan when spacing our children. The rule was no two in college at the same time. This worked great for the first three and then number four came along twenty-two months later. Best laid plans and all that. 

But the age gap between the first three allowed me to spend quality time with a new baby while the others were off at school. Then my attention could switch, guilt-free, to the older kids later in the day. It helped me establish a relationship with each of them as individuals.

Of course the more kids there are, or the closer in age, the more difficult it becomes to carve out one-on-one time. But it’s still important. We’ll often forgo large birthday parties and do something special with just the birthday child. One of my favorite memories is taking our third son to Fenway Park for a Sox game on his tenth birthday. He’s a huge baseball fan, but I know he treasured the time alone with us almost as much as he enjoyed watching the game. 

We try hard to honor our kids as individuals, and we find opportunities to explore their unique interests with them whenever possible.

Sibling relationships are a training ground for adult relationships, and our siblings can be built-in best friends if these relationships are nurtured. My relationship with my sister is one of my most treasured. I want that for my kids. And I think it’s working, most days!

It's Not Our Job to Make Them Happy

This morning I gave one of my children the option to stay home from school. He’s been under the weather and I thought a day in bed with some chicken soup would be just the thing. At first he agreed, snuggling back beneath his blankets, but a few minutes later I heard him brushing his teeth in the bathroom. “Today is my favorite day of school,” he said, and then went on to list all the great things that happen on Wednesdays.

This is relevant because last year the same child was begging to stay home from school, sick or well. It had been a rough year for various reasons, many his own doing, but I think we’ve made it to the other side. As I celebrated this quiet victory, I started thinking about our role as parents when our children are struggling.

Of course it’s gut wrenching to watch them struggle. Our instinct tells us to swoop in and make it better, to fix it. But is this always the right thing? When they face a challenge beyond their capacity to manage, it most certainly is our job to step in. Sometimes we have to take matters out of their hands and into our own. But, in my experience, this should be more the exception than the rule. 

We live in a culture of helicopter parents. When I googled the term to make sure I had it right, article after article appeared. The theme was clear. We’re a generation of parents who micromanage our kids’ lives. Consequently we’re creating a generation of kids with fewer life skills and an attitude of entitlement. I think we are doing them a grave disservice.

A recent example: My husband is Commissioner of the local flag football league. In general, it is a fantastic instructional league with levelheaded parents and a dedicated group of unpaid staff working to give the kids a positive experience. But you can’t imagine some of the emails he receives. After days of tryouts to create balanced teams, and numerous communications indicating that no team placement requests would be honored, parents nonetheless wrote to complain and request team placements. And the complaints went something like this, "Johnny can’t be on that team. None of his friends are on that team. You need to switch him.”

I think about the message these parents gave to their children. You are incapable of making new friends. Your needs outweigh those of everyone else in the league. You should avoid uncomfortable situations.

It actually feels crippling. But if we shouldn't always fix problems for our children, we have a responsibility to help them learn to do it for themselves. And maybe this is a more difficult task.

Back to the son who wanted to go to school today. Last year was rough, and he’d been the cause of some of the strife. Part of working through it meant taking responsibility for his actions and then making amends. My heart broke for him, but I couldn’t fix it for him.

What I could do was tell him I loved him no matter what, that I was right behind him every step of the way, and that his home and his family were a safe haven. I could remind him that doing the right thing mattered, even when it was hard. And I could, and would, send him to school to face the music.

As difficult as things were in the moment, he is better for having had the experience. He’s learned hard things don’t last forever. He’s learned he is brave and good, and he knows he is loved. He’s learned something real about hurt and forgiveness, and he understands everyone makes mistakes. 

It is not our job to remove all obstacles from our children’s lives. But it is our job to equip them with the skills they need to navigate the world and manage those obstacles. If they don’t face struggles, and successfully make their way through them, they won’t know how capable they are.

It is not our job to make our children happy, but it is our job to love, guide, support, and empower them, even when this is the more difficult task.