By Sarah Bousquet
“Be happy, mama!” My toddler holds my face in her clammy palms and smushes my cheeks skyward. She caught me somewhere else, far away in the land of deadlines, to-do lists, and future plans. It’s not that I’m unhappy, I’m just not here. It isn’t lost on me that she perceives these states of discontent and distraction as equivalent. Nothing yanks me back into the present like my busy, talkative toddler, those little hands forcing the corners of my mouth up in the right direction.
Trying to be present in our distracted culture often feels unattainable amidst the ping of text messages and emails. We must always be multi-tasking and yet we are told to be in the moment, especially when it comes to our kids.
Before I became a mom I thought, what’s sadder than a parent at a playground, eyes fixed on a screen while a child shouts for attention? Now I give that parent the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I am that parent. Maybe she just survived a 20-minute car tantrum. Maybe he’s finally catching up on a few emails. Maybe she’s paying a bill. Or maybe he just needs a break, the mind-numbing scroll of social media or a quick skim of the article he’s been meaning to read for a week. It’s okay to look away. The trick is not getting stuck.
I reconnect by spending time in nature, digging in the sand at the beach, walking through the woods, collecting autumn leaves. I’m present in the simple act of noticing what’s around me, a game of I-Spy. Sometimes I reconnect through a craft project, not just one I set up for my toddler, but one I actually participate in with her. It works best if the phone is left in another room and we sit at a table with paintbrushes or lumps of play-dough and I play along too. I feel time slow as we sweep colors across a sheet of paper or roll out squishy balls of dough. She usually has a lot to tell me, and I’m available to listen and respond. I consider these activities forms of meditation.
But nature walks and craft projects are not always options. They’re situational mindfulness. What about the stressful moments? The toddler meltdowns while traveling or grocery shopping or just trying to survive the day? We are told to breathe through these moments, count to ten, wait it out. I propose something else. I suggest silliness.
I am not a silly person. I’m not one to cross my eyes and stick out my tongue. I’m not inclined to hang a spoon off the end of my nose or blow spit bubbles. I definitely don’t make fart noises. But I do like to talk in funny voices and make up ridiculous nicknames. I may suddenly break into song. Actually, I lied; I totally make fart noises and any number of wacky sounds to get my daughter to laugh.
Silliness, like any skill, can be cultivated. You may have been a silly kid who grew into a serious adult, or maybe you’ve been serious from the start. The good news is you can begin any time, and you get better with practice. Silliness becomes second-nature. You remember the goofy stuff you and your siblings did as kids, like gallop through the living room or wear underpants on your head.
When you’re being silly, you are present, immersed in the moment without even trying. It’s more fun than deep-breathing and twice as successful at mitigating meltdowns. Build your repertoire. Make fart noises. Cross your eyes. Do a crazy dance. Pretend to be a bear, a horse, Cookie Monster. Go for ridiculous. It gets easier to believe that hummus finger paint is hysterical, that the cat barf you slipped on was impromptu comedy.
This is not to say I never lose it. We all do sometimes. It’s easier to keep my cool when I’m not being pulled in different directions. Mindfulness helps me refocus on just one thing. It helps me through the difficult times and deepens the ones I wish would last. It’s reclaiming the present moment that can be so challenging. Meditation and deep-breathing aren’t always conducive to parenting small children–not the way silliness is. Perhaps, too, because silliness creates connection, it is the antidote to distraction.
Now I look for opportunities to be silly everywhere. This year for Halloween my daughter chose to be a kangaroo. A week later, I discovered a kangaroo costume in adult sizes and immediately ordered one for myself. It’s rust-colored and fuzzy, a giant onesie pajama with a long tail and a pouch with a baby kangaroo. I look ridiculous, and it makes us laugh. We’re excited to hop from house to house, the silliest family in the neighborhood.
Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.