Thursday, May 26, 2016

Parenting distracted (how I burned the oatmeal)


This morning, I burned the oatmeal.
I burned the oatmeal because we were watching the garbage truck.

For years now, there’s been at least one garbage truck enthusiast in my family, and someone always rushes to the window when we hear the familiar whoosh of his brakes and the ka-chunk, ka-clunk of the trash can being picked up by the mechanical arm. This morning, three children clamored to go out to the porch so we could watch him all the way down the street.

This morning, I said yes.

I stood still on the porch in my bare feet and held my breath along with them, only taking my eyes off the garbage truck to watch the wonder and awe on their faces. The driver saw us and blew the horn as he often does. As we waved, I wondered if he has as much fun picking up our trash as we do watching him.

Then, I smelled it- the hot, starting-to-smoke smell of forgotten oats on the stovetop, oats whose simmer had turned to a boil and then boiled dry enough to coat the bottom of the pot with a dark, sticky mess.


It happened so fast.

As I salvaged the top layers and filled the pot with soapy water, I felt the familiar pangs of self-criticism. I should have been paying more attention. That’s what I get for focusing on only one thing. That’s what I get for treasuring the moment.

Parenting is really all about living with distraction. We pretend we can change this by mindfully focusing on the moment we’re in, but there is no parenting without multitasking. Life is a constant balance of paying attention to five things at once without seeming to be paying less than full attention to any of them.

I keep running into friends and strangers who tell me with grave eyes and low voices that I shouldn’t let a moment slip by, that I should be enjoying every second, because it all passes too fast.

I know it seems this way.

In the middle of it, though, in the thick of wiping noses and bottoms and cleaning up spills so no one will fall (and retrieving the first aid kit when someone does anyway), in the center of long days filled with meal-snack-meal-snack-meal and lots of arbitrating sibling wars about who got the best plastic plate at lunch yesterday, in the throes of deciding if we absolutely have to take baths tonight when everyone clearly just needs to go to bed (or if we can hold on for one more day), I can’t imagine how “treasure every moment” is even a thing.

Why do people say that?

It simply isn’t possible.
Things are slipping by me all the time.

Things constantly slip by- like that black marker that someone smuggled into the laundry room and used to write all over the washer and dryer. Or the book that someone tore the pages out of to use for drawing paper. Or the hand soap in the bathroom that somehow stole (apparently unaided) into a bedroom where it hid under the bed to use itself as doll shampoo.

These things absolutely slipped by. Unfortunately, they are burned into my memory…I rather wish I could forget them instead of treasuring them in my heart.

I know there are more precious things I'm missing, too- the face Felix was making as he joyously smeared his oatmeal in his hair (which I missed because I was pouring juice for Nora). The look of triumph in Nora’s eyes when she correctly identified buttercups in the yard and picked all of them for me (which I missed because I was comforting the screaming Lucy, who couldn’t find any buttercups to pick). The joyous victory of Sam, who triumphed over his long struggle to cross the monkey bars sideways on his 17th attempt (which I missed after watching the first 16 attempts because Felix face planted onto the patio just as Sam began making his way across again).

I know I’m missing things. I hear it all the time. “Mama! You weren’t looking!”

Maybe this is the real reason I haven’t had enough energy for online community lately…there is so much going on here that cries out for my attention. It’s not just the children, of course- there is the always regenerating pile of laundry and the constant quest to figure out what we’ll have for dinner when I reach the end of my meal planning rope. There are big life events and big social events and big church events…and the little, pesky things like library deadlines and oil changes and the broken knob on the dryer.

I know everyone has these things to think about.

I feel guilty when I miss something or forget to follow through on one of the many requests that come to me each day, and I convince myself that the rest of you are doing a better job keeping up than I am.

I bet the rest of you don’t always notice everything, either, do you?

My deepest fear is that I am not doing enough- that too many things are slipping by me, that I’m dropping the ball too often, that I am not up to the challenge of what is set before me. I’m not talking about distractions that aren’t worthy of my time and focus. I’m talking about the good stuff- reading aloud, eating good food, gardening, being outside with the kids, nurturing creativity (mine and others’), writing thank you notes, spending special time with each of those who have been placed in my life.

There is not enough time to do everything and certainly not enough to do everything well at once.

I’m not sure why I think I have to be perfect. I certainly wouldn’t hold any of you to that standard- and if you told me you were feeling bad about not measuring up, I’d be the first to tell you all the ways you are incredible- not just for what you do, but for who you are.

You’re enough. And so am I. We just need to believe it.

It’s unfair, this idea that we should somehow try to hold all the things in front of us and not miss any of them. When every moment of parenting is supposed to be sacred, there is no room for the remarkable moments to stand out. Everyday things can be holy, it’s true- I base a lot of my work on this idea, and I firmly believe it. But thinking that every single ordinary moment has to be an extraordinary one or that every second is a memory we’re about to miss if we don’t pay attention and capture it is too much pressure.

Today, I’m reminding myself that no one ever treasured it all.
Today, I’m letting myself off the hook.
Maybe it’s not possible to have perfect oatmeal and to be fully present in the garbage truck watching moment. Maybe instead of doing everything perfectly at the same time, we’re going to have to start making some hard choices about where our energy and focus are going.

Today, I chose the garbage truck…and the oatmeal was still basically edible.

What about you? How do you decide where to look when everything that calls for your attention is worthy of it?