Sunday, 6 May 2018

How to Be Present With Your Children

Recently, I’ve been struggling a lot with boredom, and the consequential guilt that has arisen from it. I find myself bored with my children. And so I find myself feeling guilty that I’m bored.

When I was at university, the development of my identity was at the centre of everything I did. Each week I studied what was interested in. I wrote about what thought. I wore things that I liked. I picked friends who made me feel stimulated. I learned to cook whatever seemed might taste delicious, I tried new sports and stopped them if they didn’t feel right and carried on if they were. Every decision I made was about what I wanted, who I wanted to be, what path I wanted to take.

Motherhood, for me, has been diametrically opposed to this. Stop – says the infant child – and be here, right now, as you are. Not to tell me interesting stories. Not to listen to me tell you mine, or unload my anxieties, or ask you for help with a difficult decision, or gossip, or joke. No. Listen to me gurgle. Watch me reach for the nearest object I can just about focus my gaze on. Watch me learn to focus my gaze on your gaze. 

Stop searching for your ‘self’, and bring your current self, as it is --a work in progress-- to the table. Be with me, as you are, right now. And give yourself over to, not just this moment but, each moment. Give yourself over to a series of seemingly inconsequential moments that provide no satisfaction to that search for truth and self-actualisation that previously formed the telos of your days, months and years. You are not the culmination of your interests. You are not your outfits. You are not the books you read nor the parties you vote for. You are a mother. You are not even what you thought that was – you are not ‘a mother’ in that sense of that image or list of tasks you had of what a mother might look like or do. No. You are not any type of mother, you are not ‘the kind of’ mother ‘you’ want to be. You are just this: my mother. This child belongs to you as you belong to this child. 

In other words, it’s boring. It sounds beautifully still and truthful and primal – but a lot of stuff that is beautiful, still, true and primal in essence is unstimulating and dull in the experience of it.

And for a long time I have told myself – and believed others who said – that it’s boring because of my internal resistance. It’s boring because we are flawed people. It’s boring because I’m fighting the pure simplicity of it. It’s boring because my mother isn’t a strong presence, hasn’t been a physical presence for a long time, in my life, so I’m anxious about how to be a mother myself, which manifests in boredom. It’s boring because I’m fighting my own nature. It’s boring because everything beautiful and good is only obtained with struggle and hard work and the inevitable boredom that comes with tedious tasks that delay gratification for a greater, future, good. 

Until I started reading a book. Well –listening, in fact. I started listening to an audio book, because I barely have time to read now, so I put on podcasts and audio books during the hours I spend with my children, because I don’t want to ‘be present’ with my children. There, I said it. I put on audio books in the background. And I pay attention to them. I listen to them more than my toddlers’ screams and singing and shouts and laughter. I listen to pre-recorded adults more. And I find it more interesting than my own children. And I feel ashamed and I try to limit how much I do it as much as possible – I do it feeling wrecked with guilt that I’m not fully focussed on That’s Not My Duck.

I started listening to this book, One Beautiful Dream– Jennifer Fulwiler’s ‘rollicking tale of family chaos, personal passions, and saying yes to them both’ – which I have not yet finished but which I highly recommend for anyone who’s wondering what they’re called to do in life re: children/career/family size. I started listening to this book and the realisation suddenly hit me, that, maybe, just maybe, I find being with my children boring because it is boring.

It’s not boring because there’s some internal battle within me struggling against something that is in fact wonderful and good and meant for me and the best thing for my children. Maybe it’s just boring. Maybe I’m just not supposed to be doing parenting that way. Maybe defining ‘being present’ in a particular way that refers to your actions, your thoughts, and the amount of eye contact and focus you place on your child is not only narrow but downright incorrect. Maybe being present is something a lot more fundamentally earth-shatteringthan looking like a Montessori-trained nanny. 

Jen (we’re on first-name terms after I listened to her read her memoir to me) talks about writing being her ‘blue flame’ – her God-given gift that, when used and cultivated, has her setting the world on fire. ‘Be who you were created to be,’ says St Catherine of Siena, ‘and you will set the world on fire.’ For Jen, it’s important all mothers find out what their blue flame is and use their gifts in order to be better mothers.

This wasn’t particularly new to me: the idea that you should reserve some time for yourself, pursue your interests, leave time for things other than childcare and household chores etc, in order to be a better mother. In order to ‘be there’ for your family. You can’t pour from an empty cup, etc.

But I still thought of this as a binary between ‘myself’ and ‘my mothering self’. I would have some ‘time off’ to go and do what fed my soul, and then I would go back and give myself completely to my children, give them my full attention, point out the names of things to them, smile back at them, make them giggle, gently tell them off when they do something they’re not supposed to, or consistently put them back on on time out, ensure they choose their own outfits, insert parenting advice from parenting web article here, etc, etc, etc.

Then I realised: maybe that’s not it. Yes, time apart from your children/the home is of upmost importance if you work in the home. It’s important to have time where you are not working. But that doesn’t mean your work can’t be stimulating to you on a personal level. It doesn’t mean if you’re not suffering then you’re not doing the best job you can. Sometimes mortification is about letting go of our narrow, human conception of an ideal and opening up to what God wants of us. Sometimes to deny yourself is to deny yourself that ideal that you’ve been striving for – that ideal that you’ve been, paradoxically, denying yourself for (or so you thought). 

That kind of sentence makes me cringe. A voice in my head (I bet I can guess whose) is saying ‘no, that’s just hippy crap people tell themselves to justify their own human failings and inevitable falling short of the high standards God has for us.’ The voice in my head is very clever – smarter than me – it tells me that the path to doing a good job is to try hard and accept you will fail and ask for forgiveness and energy and try hard again. Not to give up on the things you feel guilty about if you’re not doing them. That’s the path to comfort and it’s fundamentally short-sighted and defeatist.

That’s true, in a lot of ways. But sometimes a true thought or sentiment is leading us to a false conclusion. In my case, this idea that I shouldn’t give up on something just because it’s extremely hard (true) was making me think that the best mother, the present mother, does not listen to audio books (less self-evidently true). She pays attention to her children. Her mind isn’t elsewhere. She is aware of their gurgles, their smiles, their coughing, their crawlings, their teeth coming through.

The thing is, some mothers are like that, and that is them being ‘the best mother’ they can be. Maybe a lot of people’s good mothering looks like that. It could even be that the vast majority of good mothers look like that. But what do you look like when you’re present? What is it like when you’re present, not when just ‘a good mother’ is present?

This notion of ‘being present’ just isn’t me. ‘Situational awareness’ is actually my Myers-Briggs type’s lowest cognitive ability. My strongest is ‘introverted intuition’. That means that my preferred, and most capable, way of apprehending the world is intuitiveand introverted. Concretely, that means that for a long time – my whole life – I have tended to be the last person to notice if someone is smiling at them. This doesn’t change when it’s my own children doing the smiling. I suffer from a severe case of ‘resting bitch face’ because I am always absorbed in my own thoughts and forget to manifest a variety of emotions to the external world and the people surrounding it. If I am reading (or, more likely, texting) it takes several seconds for me to register that someone (in the real world of the flesh) has spoken to me. Do not be offended if I don’t wave back to you when you run into me in the street – I have either not seen you or not recognised you. I cannot find my way from the station to a friend’s house that I’ve visited dozens of times before. In short, my head is always in the clouds.

I knew this, but what I didn’t know was that this would make me terrible at a lot of mother-child activities. I am never going to enjoy sitting on the floor of the boys’ nursery  whilst colour sorting legos. Or building cars out of legos. Or building anything out of legos. Just anywhere near legos. Legos are dull. It’s just stuff. Stuff is boring. Toys are boring. Books are less boring – but kids’ books are still prettyboring. Teeth coming through are boring. I don’t care. Milestones are kind of exciting, but the run-up to them is not. If our children got up one day and started walking, that would be cool. But the gradual, slow, process of learning to walk is not, for me, a joy to witness. Singing nursery rhymes is boring. Trying to teach my infant children anythingis boring. I do it as far as it’s necessary, of course, but I’m never going to relish the opportunities for it.

I was feeling so awful about this, riddled with guilt, thinking maybe I didn’t belong in the home with my children. Maybe, even though I wanted to be a stay at home mum, really I wasn’t meant for that and I should think about finding a job. Then this book changed everything. I realised that just because I found a lot of stuff I was expected to do boring, this didn’t mean I found my childrenboring. It didn’t mean I found being a motherboring. In fact, when I let go of expectations of what I am supposed to do, I am not bored in the least. I am fulfilled. Yes, I still need a break from work regularly. Yes, I still need to directly use my ‘blue flame’ gifts in moments apart from my children and away from the house. But when I let go of my expectations of what a good mother must do, what ‘being present’ looks like, then I am at peace with my children. Not bored. At peace.

And when you find peace, you realise the wealth of things that brings you joy. I like listening to podcasts and audio books while my children explore the world, largely ignored by me, but perfectly capable of getting my attention if they need it. I like – no, love– cuddles. I can cuddle for hours, and we probably do, aggregately, every day. I like putting on loud music and dancing, and I never not find my toddler’s dancing hilarious to the point of laughing out loud. I like story time, but I only like it at bed time, when we’re in pyjamas and in bed and have had milk and we’re huddled up under the covers – and it’s fine that that’s the only time I enjoy it. I like doing very dramatic readings, with different voices and accents, which I am terrible at. I like making jokes that only an adult can understand, but to my children, mostly for my benefit, but also because I don’t want to have a ‘child-friendly’ personality the whole time I’m with them. I love taking them to church. I love doing household chores with them – whether or not they’re interested in what I’m doing. I love going for silent, non nature-focussed, non-game related, non-educational, non-adventurouswalks down the same streets every afternoon. I love being with other people with my children playing freely in whatever way they want (as long as it’s not life-threatening).

More than anything, I love letting them be. Not interfering. Not teaching. Not demonstrating. Not modelling. Not talking. Not watching. Not listening. Simply aware of their presence, while I inhabit my thoughts.  And that may not look or sound like much. It might even look like I’m distracted. Maybe I am distracted. But I have always been distracted. It’s being distracted by thoughts that gives me a need to write. And my need to write isn’t separate from my being a mother. My being distracted isn’t something I put on hold while I am fully focussed on my children. I am a distracted mother because I am a distracted person. And that isn’t something I need to address or change in order to fit better into a mould of what an ideal person is like (‘present’). That isn’t something I need to be anxious or guilty about, even if it has negative outcomes as well as positive ones. That is just part of who I was created to be. I am distracted by things that interest me. Being a distracted mother means I am a mother with interests. Being interested in things other than my children doesn’t mean I am disinterested in my children as people.Being distracted doesn’t mean I’m not emotionally present – that is a facile distinction to make. Being detached doesn’t imply coldness. You can feel a distance from your immediate surroundings without lacking in empathy. Your mind can be engrossed by a million thoughts but 80% of them might refer to the children you would rather contemplate than play lego with. You don’t know what being present looks like for you until you allow yourself to ‘stop’, as a newborn demands of you with such urgency, and bring your present self – a work in progress – as it is, to be with them, as you are, right now.

1 comment:

  1. this is so so so so beautiful. we should hang out more. I think we are soul sisters. I have a book called the Tao of Motherhood by Vimala McClure. She writes, "good mothering looks like no mothering." I think that hanging out with other people while your kids run free is the most wonderful thing. Like you said, they know where you are if they need you. And this is the important thing. Freedom is a gift. A basic human need. So is attachment. And you give them both. YOU are an amazing mother. I can feel it. Even if you don't like legos. And I love that you've just blasted away all the "rules" for motherhood that we all think exist. We don't know what they are, exactly, but we all look for them, because we want to follow them. And realizing that there are no rules is the scariest thing, but also the most powerful, because
    that's when we start to grow. Love your writing!