array(0) {

How to Pay Attention (But Not Too Much)

IMG_9697The thing I’ve noticed recently when I spend time with friends whose kids are very young is how hard the parents work. Partially, it’s hard not to make heavy lifting out of a situation that is, by definition, heavy lifting.

The very small mew, they cry. They are constantly in need of milk and burps and sleep and diaper changes and motion and quiet and loudness in the form of dryers or jackhammers or our voices. Miraculously, one day, they roll over. They crawl. They sit. They grab things sometimes things we hand them and other times things we wouldn’t hand to them in a million years. They don’t sleep. They do sleep. They cut teeth. They walk and then the trouble seems exponential. They can’t talk and then they talk too much. The heavy lifting comes from how many seconds are in a day (86,400, thank you, Google) and how many hands are required to get through each 86,400-second stretch of time.

You think to yourself if only you tire them out enough they will sleep. So, you set yourself the mission to do this. On the playground, it’s not enough to be there; you want them to move around, slide, climb, run, ride; you don’t want the swings or the quiet sand play. You did not come to this playground to have them rest in any way. You came for the run-around, the tire-you-out. You cheer and cajole and incite a race. “Isn’t today almost over?” one friend said to me, her hair dripping, after she took her preschooler to a family swim yesterday afternoon when we collided in the Y’s locker room.

I hadn’t been in the pool. My friend took her girl and mine to swim; I took them to the open gymnastics session. The tag team approach helps with those 86,400 seconds. In fact, the lazy approach characterizes a certain aspect to my parenting of my youngest one. I stopped cutting her food in small bites early on. I indulge and cater plenty, but the things she asks for more often than the things I offer. If she can do something—from get the tights on to snap the seatbelt to brush the hair well enough some days—I do not offer. Given the many elaborate efforts I made to get everything  just right for the first sibs, and surrounded by parents of small children who are in so many ways more conscientious than I manage, I often feel like a slacker. I come nowhere near the high benchmark set by my less seasoned and less exhausted and less busy with other things self.

Both hard work and slackerdom have their inherent complications. With a couple kids in the preparatory launch chute of adolescence I think less about those 86,400 seconds and more about how to pay attention to them in ways that feel good to the kid and also can encourage independence and self-sufficiency.

That’s why the carton of already-made tomato soup I recently bought feels like a surprisingly good purchase. The eleven-year-old son loves this soup. Doctored up with garlic croutons, the fifteen-year-old son eats it, too. Each kid prepares his own food when the food is tomato soup. The bonus is that the eleven-year-old son is delighted I remembered he loves this soup and bought it for him. I even got an unsolicited hug.

I want to be a person in my kids’ lives who makes efforts that count. I no longer think I can accomplish that by doing everything for them. I don’t think that I’ve given up on effort, though. Mid-autumn of this school year, I remembered something I’d done like clockwork for the oldest kid for some period of time—could have been months or years or not every day but often, I really do not know any longer. I tucked a note into the kindergartner’s lunch box. Careful to make the block letters legible, the one-line message and the hearts, pretty much always some heart goes somewhere, the notes, which I try to remember to send every school day, represent what I hope she remembers in the fibers of her memory—that she was loved, that we paid attention, that we showered her with hearts and that her happiness and sense of being connected occurred even when she wasn’t physically with us. I hope a good bowl of tomato soup sends the same message, someday. It’ll take a lot longer than 86,400 seconds to find out. I can wait. It’s taken a while to feel this way, but I can wait.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Share Button

This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Additional posts by

Tags: , , ,