Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Defending My Turf

As I’m wiping down the table from dinner, I casually listen in on the lively game of superheroes being played out in the next room. Phil had promised the older two he’d play with them before bed and now it’s a mighty showdown: My Little Pony versus toy soldiers versus the Riddler. It’s a fantastical scene that could only be concocted in the minds of seven and five year olds. I hear Dylan excitedly play out one of the scenes: “And then Daddy….the Penguin is going to use his rays to stop the soldiers and then he’ll take over the Bat cave!”

I wait and listen for Phil’s response. It sounds like this: “umm hmmm…”

Every part of my body tenses up. Without moving, without looking, I know exactly what is happening right now. His phone went off – more work emails. He responded to the notification. He is looking down and checking email. I do not in any way blame him for this. He is caught in a constant tug between his personal and professional life. And that phone is the rope that keeps him mentally and physically tethered to his job all day and night. He wants to separate but then another email comes in and well, he’ll just read this one more. But I hate that this scene is playing out in front of the kids and completely interrupting critical Bat cave time.

Phil’s time with the kids is limited really to bedtime hours – that brief window between 6:30 and 8pm. When he’s home during those hours, it is imperative to me that he have his phone put away. This is important not just for the kids, but for Phil because he too needs this break to refocus, refresh. But I realize, how does he know what this means to me when I’ve never told him – when we’ve never had the talk.

When we first came together as a couple ten years ago, we talked about all sorts of things that couples talk about to help them sort out whether or not they are in it for the long haul and assess compatibility. We discussed children, if we wanted them and how many of them we wanted, where we wanted to live, our views on social justice, faith, and money. But we never discussed technology because it was a non-issue back then. Phil had a blackberry and a flip phone. I had a flip phone. Data plans were nonexistent and the habits that are so pervasive in our daily life literally didn’t exist.

Flash forward to ten years later. We’ve got a house and three kids and a marriage that requires constant TLC because anything worth anything always does. And it occurs to me that technology advanced so quickly over the course of our relationship that we never stopped to talk about the spaces in which we were and were not comfortable letting it in or conversely expressly wanted it out.

As silly as it sounds, technology, and the subsequent ripple effect it can have on feelings and people, is still a relatively new concept to the coupled version of us. Technology takes up space and if you don’t acknowledge that and specifically carve out where and what you’re going to give it access to, it’s like a third person in your relationship. And no one expressly invited Siri into my Chuppah.

So I said something like this: “I don’t think I ever told you how important it is to me to have your phone off between the hours of 6:30 and 8pm. I really want this to be our time together - just us. I hope you understand what this means to me.”

And he said something like, “I really didn’t know how important that was to you. I will keep it off between 6:30 and 8pm.”

(ps this was the most grown up conversation we’ve ever had in married life)

And then I said, “Is there a time of day when I use my phone that bothers you? Like for example when Hope wakes me up in the middle of the night and I have a hard time going back to bed, I’ll turn on my phone and look at it. Does that bother you? Does the light bother you when you are sleeping?”

To which he not surprisingly responded, “Yes. This bothers me.”

And so we agreed to respect the spaces in our family and relationship and home where we weren’t willing to let technology in. I’m certain we will both need gentle reminders from time to time, but the idea that we talked specifically about this seemed landmark to me in some way. It was so important yet so deceptively simple and easy to overlook. I wonder if there are more couples that experience tension around these different moments in the day but can’t quite pinpoint the source.

These phones can be tricky like that, making us so available to so many people, places, and things, that we forget how quickly this access can erode the intimacy that our families are built on. It is the kind of intimacy that exists solely outside of our phones, in real relationships hashed out through grown up talks about complicated stuff and in live action play on the Bat cave battlefield.
And so the phone goes away. Dylan lines up the soldiers and the Penguin makes a daring attempt to take over the Green Lantern's cave!
Indeed this is turf worth defending.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Color of Mothering

Recently I attended a baby shower for an old friend. She is about to set off on a whole new path in her life: that of mothering and parenthood. In her honor, we piled into another old friend’s home and packed it with mismatched chairs and relatives and love and good wishes and baby clothes and our most important tips for the soon to be new mother. People had lots of really wonderful (and useful) pieces of advice – things like trust your gut, and if you’re really stuck, call your mother.

But the one funny thing about all of it was that I couldn’t help but feel like so much of the way we paint new motherhood and parenthood for that matter for those about to jump into the deep, is one of extremes. We say things like, “get your rest now because you’ll never sleep again!” or, “you’ll never know a love like this,” or imply that you will instinctively know what to do, or automatically feel overwhelmed, or feel complete, or feel everything or feel nothing.

It’s ironic really, this picture of parenthood as all sorts of lopsidedness: all one thing or another. I’ve always felt it’s actually the exact opposite of that. With children, with loving them and parenting them, it is never all one thing or another. Nearly every moment of the day I vacillate between ranges of extreme emotions with them, and usually land somewhere in between. I feel wild boredom at another round of Candy Land, mixed with a healthy dose of insane gratitude that they are little and young and still want to play Candy Land with me. There is always this tiny crack between extreme exhaustion and sleeplessness, and overwhelming pride or ridiculous joy. And in this tiny crack, this little pocket of gray, this is where my heart beats as a mother.

I’ve always hated gray – the color, the feeling, the lack of anything that it ever is. But learning to love them has been an exploration of the gray and an opportunity for the first time ever to truly embrace the everything and nothing that parenthood always seems to represent. This constant push and pull away and toward them and myself.

Yesterday I took Hope to her first little gym class. It was pretty awesome for her and for me. Nearly all of her days are usually spent napping, picking up someone, dropping off someone, or attending basketball and soccer games. As the third child, she painfully assumes this is an amazing and engaging daily existence. So to listen to her literally squeal with delight in a class that was just for her, was truly a pleasure for both of us. As is customary with this particular baby class, there is a point toward the end where they place a bunch of toys in the middle of the floor and ask the parents to move to the side and leave their babies. They call it, in their terrifyingly sing songy voice, “separation time!” This is my third time attending this class with a little one and I’m an experienced parent when it comes to separation time. I know the drill. Drop them off quick, move out of the way even more quickly, and stay out of their line of sight lest they spot you and unravel.

So I quickly plopped her next to a bunch of shiny looking toys and babies and snuck off behind some equipment to watch. Not surprisingly, she was fine. She was better than fine. She didn’t look back for me even once which was exactly what she was supposed to do. She played, she chewed on some toys, she bartered with some other babies for some balls, and she crawled off on her own. And as I watched her I was surprised to find a lump in my throat and some uninvited tears in my eyes. This is all of what it’s about. Hold them close, snuggle them, rock them to sleep and launch them and let them go. We’re raising them to leave us. Which is right. And painful. And amazing. That crack. That gray.

There is a quote I read by Anne Lamott the other day. In it, she said this: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” This is it. You wait and watch and work. There is darkness and dawn, and all of that mess that comes in between - the hard and amazing? Well this is mothering.

It is the middle of the night and the sound of Hope’s cry wakes me up. I know what she needs. Not a bottle or a fresh diaper or anything, just me and the sound of my heartbeat. I am exhausted and I just want to sleep, but I drag myself out of bed to her and when I pick her up and put her on my chest, we both instantly relax in the dark.  I am tired, and in love. She is stubborn and growing way too fast. Soon the sun will be up and we’ll both try to make sense of a whole lot of transactional bullshit mixed with intense emotions which is the standard formula for the daily existence of a parent.

Hope begins in the dark.

Because of her, because of all of them, I show up to live and love in the gray.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Distracted Living: One Year Later

It’s been exactly one year since I wrote Distracted Living. In that piece, I described a night when I left my daughter alone in the tub while I went to start the shower for her brother. I stopped to look at an e-mail. It was just two minutes, but it could have been a lifetime. She had fallen asleep in the bathtub. I could have lost her.

I had no idea that my story of that night would resonate with so many. What was it that we were responding to? How it is that so many men and women across the country saw themselves in that moment? What was taking over all of us?

I regret that after all this time, I still have more questions than answers. Are our lives supposed to have a headline that we could be distracted from? Or are we supposed to be living in multiple places, spaces, and stories at all times? Were we designed that way? Or are we literally evolving, from an evolutionary place in terms of how we operate, based on these little devices we almost always have in our hands, in our back pocket, in front of our faces, on our nightstands, never more than two inches from us.

Over time, I have come to realize that my desire to multi-task stems from a very human place, not just a dependency on technology. You see, what I missed in my post one year ago was that I pinned the source of this inability to single task, this feeling of chronic distractedness, as directly correlated with the rise of smartphones and tablets. But what I undervalued is what drives that increasing scope: you and me. Human desires, struggles, boredom, frustration. I wasn’t just externally distracted by other people, places, and things that needed me. I was equally seeking distractions in a very human quest to evade tricky feelings through enough apps and clicks.

Over the past several months, I have taken some steps to increase my comfort level with the role of technology in my life, and to minimize distractions. I have specific moments in my day when phones and tablets are far away. These include: meals, driving, bathing, and bedtime rituals with our children. I have deleted all social media apps from my phone. Perhaps most importantly, all of my notifications have been disabled. It doesn’t hum or rattle or beep. It just lies there and does nothing, the way a piece of plastic should.

But this feeling of struggling to single task, I would be lying if I said it didn’t still persist. It is hard to be okay with letting things drop: being late, or messy or uncomfortable or letting little ones feel impatient. It is hard to feel that you cannot help them all or do it all. It is a hard truth borne from a slowly evolving realization that doing less can, in fact, mean more.

I recently read an article detailing a scientific study that people who read books, or who engage in “slow reading,” are more able to retain information than if the same thing is read on an e-reader. The authors write: “As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning.” This perfectly sums up this feeling that I continue to struggle with: this feeling of skimming through life, rather than absorbing the meaning.

Do you know this feeling? It is the difference between sitting at the table versus being at it, or putting them to bed versus tucking them in. It is the difference between eating your food versus tasting it or raising your kids versus enjoying them. Are you truly there in mind and body, or are you skimming?

Honestly, it’s harder than it looks. One year later, I still fight the impulse to avoid hard feelings by looking down, or to just multitask my way through the hours. Each day, I am at war with myself over the misguided and culturally reinforced notion that having it all, in fact, means doing it all. It is a hard fight. But I continue to wage my own daily struggle with intention.


Monday, January 12, 2015

The Productive Parent

It’s a pretty typical Sunday morning. The house is a disaster. I survey the damage.

There are boots and coats and toys and books and dishes and rapidly aging holiday cards as far as the eye can see. And socks. My god there are socks everywhere. For a reason I can’t quite explain, my children go through 3-4 pairs of socks each day. They take them off immediately whenever they come inside the house and replace them with a fresh pair. And they leave their old socks just about anywhere. It is a horrifying and disgusting habit and I can always tell just how much we’ve let things slide on cleaning by how many stray socks are in my line of sight.

I review the list in my head of what’s on tap, of what needs to get done. Sunday will be busy indeed. I’ve done two loads of laundry already and the laundry hamper is still completely full. I have no idea how this is even possible. We’ve got two different birthday parties and three different cards to make, the grocery shopping is a high priority, at least 1-2 naps for the baby, both Phil and I want to exercise, Dylan’s basketball game, bills, chores, oil changes….

At some point I just give up mentally listing it all out knowing that the odds that all of it will get done are slim. Already, somewhere around 9:15AM I feel a sense of futility about the day. I know I will go to the bed and the house will still be a mess. The hamper will still be full. Those three phone calls I needed to make? I probably won’t have done them. I will be so busy, but to what end?

I head downstairs to see if Dylan is ready for his first birthday party of the day. He is working on a birthday card and I see his favorite board game by his feet. I know he leaves it close by him because he is hoping that if someone walks by unsuspectingly, he will make them his board game victim and lure them in to play. Even at 37 I remember so acutely what it is like to want a grown up’s attention so I quickly say without even thinking, “Will you promise me one game today? It probably won’t be till much later, but I want you to promise me that you and I will have a game.” He does, and off we go into the busy of the day.

I’ve been very stuck on the concept of busy lately – of what constitutes busy, what makes us feel that way. Lately I feel like I’ve been stuck in the cult of busy. I talk so much about how busy I am because I think that makes me feel relevant and important (to whom?) but I’m not sure that the swirl of mental and physical chaos I’ve been operating in actually constitutes relevance or importance. Recently, I watched a short clip of Kory Kogon, one of the authors of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, talking about how too often we fill our lives and commentary with busy; that is, we focus on the transactional parts of the day. But in fact, everyone is busy, but only some of us are actually productive. She says that the difference between busy and productive lies in the answer to these questions: am I getting the right things done? Am I getting the important things done? Being productive means shifting your emphasis away from all the mindless little crap that is always going to fill up our day, instead to the 2-3 big rocks that are going to move you forward toward your goal.

If I take Kogon's words at face value, being a productive parent on any given day means I have to actually know what the goal is (which I don’t always) and to do something each day that reflects that I am moving toward it. Sometimes it just so easy to forget in the busy-ness of life, that our job is not to just exist as their caretakers, their laundry do-ers and grocery shoppers, but that there is bigger stuff at work. That we must always keep our eyes on the real prize, the real goal: that of raising men and women with empathy and curiosity. I’ve always despised how few handbooks there are on this. How you just have to love and feel your way through it. How you have to model and teach something that is nearly impossible to wrap your fingers around.

The day unfolds much as I expect. We are busy. We are seemingly in constant motion and the baby never even gets to nap. She eats lunch on a basketball court, the rest of us in our car. Dylan shows some questionable sportsmanship on the court and we go home and have a difficult conversation about what it means to be a teammate and friend. There is lots of crying and it feels like a complete waste that everyone has exhausted themselves and most of their afternoon doing something that he declares as officially the worst day ever. The hamper is still full. And there are fucking socks everywhere.

But we limp toward the finish line of bedtime. We get everyone bathed and mostly fed with something that mildly looks like dinner and involves at least one fruit, one vegetable, and many nitrates. Dylan reminds me of my early morning promise and of course, he’s right. So I walk away from the tower of dishes and we play a rousing game of NFL Game Day. In the end, my Dallas Cowboys narrowly defeat his Arizona Cardinals. He is gracious in defeat.

As he cleans up the game, I ask him what the best part of his day has been. There was two hours of Super Mario Brothers, two birthday parties, a cupcake and cake, one basketball game, and NFL playoffs on the television all day. Despite all of this, I am sure I already know his answer. Without hesitation, he smiles and replies, “this!” I can’t help but smile back. I kept my promise to him and I think he’ll remember that. He’s a good boy. I’m proud of that.  That feeling of pride in my chest flickers like a tiny reminder of what is really important, of what it is Phil and I are actually doing here.

There are socks and dishes everywhere, but he lets me kiss him on top of his head while he cleans up our game. I feel pretty productive.