3 Strategies for Being Genuinely Present with Your Family Even on the Busiest Days

Rather than relying on inner zen to slow down and connect with my kids, I rely on a few strategies that seem to always work for us.

I am going to make a wild leap and guess that any parent reading a parenting magazine has probably gone to bed at least one night and thought, with an exasperated sigh, “I barely saw my kids today” or “Why did I yell at her?”

I know that feeling. You’re exhausted after a long day and your child, equally exhausted from school or daycare, pitches a fit while you’re trying to make dinner.
Then you struggle to get your child to even eat that dinner, and have to work even harder to get pajamas on and wrestle them into bed. All the while you’re distracted by something stressful that happened at work or by how tired you are from taking care of the kids all day; or you’re mentally planning the things you need to get done after bedtime (do the laundry, pack the lunches, build that bookcase, fix the broken light).
On these nights, a little birdie on my shoulder pops up when I’m trying to get to sleep and asks “did you learn nothing in that mindfulness class?”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]For me, it’s not enough for someone to tell me I should stop and smell the flowers; that my kids will be grown before I know it and I should remember to pay attention to them now.[/su_pullquote]
For me, it’s not enough for someone to tell me I should stop and smell the flowers; that my kids will be grown before I know it and I should remember to pay attention to them now.
Maybe I’m wound a little too tight to know intrinsically how to do that. I find some solace in knowing that even the best yogis have taken years of classes to learn how to find that place where the brain can actually feel at peace.
So rather than relying on my inner zen to remind me to slow down, I rely on a few strategies that seem to always work for us.
And when I remember to do these things, and do them well, I can fall asleep a bit more easily.

Commit to a family ritual

We’ve all read the parenting magazines that tell us how kids thrive on routine, especially in the morning or at bed time when we need them to accomplish certain tasks. I believe it’s the same for parents.
We get better at slowing down and being present with our kids if we make a routine, or ritual, out of it. For us, this takes the shape of a dinnertime “share.”
Every night, after our meals are served (and yes, this relies on actually eating dinner together) our son pauses from eating and asks “So Daddy, what was it?” After a little bit of joking or absentmindedness (“What was what?”) we get down to business. My son is asking each of us to share the best part of our day. For a whole five minutes we stop telling the kids to take another bite and we listen to each other talk about the moments of our day when we were happiest.
This all started when I read one of those great articles about how useless it is to ask “how was your day” and tested out a more specific question. For over a year, this evening ritual has stuck. My son even asks it when we are visiting relatives or eating dinner with friends.
Rituals can be as small as this nightly conversation topic or as big as full family dinner preparation on Sundays, but the important thing is to hold the ritual sacred against almost every distraction that life throws you.

Drop everything (even for just 10 minutes).

Father Reading to Child
When my son comes home after a long day at school and aftercare I have a bad habit of telling him he needs to entertain himself (and worse, his sister too) while I make dinner. Are you kidding?
This is the first he’s seen of me and I now I’m telling him I’m still not available? It sounds ridiculous to admit that I try this on a regular basis; how many experts do I need to tell me that the poor behavior that follows is simply him expressing his desire to spend time with me? On my good days, I use a different strategy.
I put down my bags and say “OK, bud, I’m all yours for the next 15 minutes before I have to start making dinner, so what should we do together with this time?”
We might sit down and color together, taking turns filling in a joint page on a coloring book, or deciding together what picture we want to draw and consulting on color choices and who will draw which part as we go.
And during this time I don’t check my e-mail (I just left work, for goodness sake, why do I feel the need to check in again?) and I don’t try to multitask by getting ingredients out for dinner.
For those 10-15 minutes, I am all his. Eight times out of ten (nobody’s perfect), when I do have to make dinner he’s a little more relaxed and able to entertain himself or talk to me while I work.

Move together.

mother and son playing with autumn leaves
Let’s face it: getting exercise just isn’t the same after you have kids. Forgive me if you’ve already discovered this strategy and you’re one of those awesome families that is always hiking and skiing together; I envy you. I’m taking baby steps.
My recent wins include: getting up 10 minutes earlier so that the trip to the bus stop (we have a long drive) can be a family affair; realizing that the 20 minute fitness video that my son loves doing on gonoodle.com would actually be good for me to do with him; and signing up for a toddler yoga class with my daughter.
Sure, this isn’t the same as going for a half-hour run (I never did that) or taking an hour-long pilates class downtown (I used to do that), but it gets us moving and it also gets us spending dedicated time together. As an added bonus, it’s harder to be distracted or to multitask when you are doing something physical with your child. That’s a win-win in my book.
One thing they teach you in mindfulness classes is that being mindful doesn’t mean you have to meditate for two hours every day.
Even a 5 minute breathing exercise at your desk can reap rewards. Likewise, even 10 minutes of dedicated time one-on-one with a child can help to rejuvenate us both. Sometimes you just need a little reminder.
Every family has a style, and your strategy for finding moments to connect likely reflects that style, but there is also no shame in borrowing strategies from others. What works for you?

Your Kid’s Annoying Habit of Interrupting Can Save You From Yourself

To be a parent means to be interrupted. Anywhere. Anytime. For pretty much anything. Though trying, it may not be the worst thing after all.

There are certain realities all parents share that bind us together as One People. It’s as though we have collectively pledged to a Declaration of Not-As-Much-Independence…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Children are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creators with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Stuff That’s Wicked Fun.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Families, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, (hahaha, that makes me laugh).

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Households… To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Here’s a Fact. Our kids interrupt us. All the time, under any circumstance. We employ countless coping mechanisms (“strategies” on a good day) in response. Nevertheless, the interruptions continue, regardless of chosen sleep method, race, country, or creed. It’s as though we entered an obstacle course on the day our children were born – one that ends maybe never.

It doesn’t matter if we’re in a meeting, driving through ridiculous traffic, baking a soufflé, sleeping, perhaps enjoying a bed’s other fine uses, or conducting an orchestra. We might be on the cusp of saying something insightful at a gathering of clever friends or, after a decade of trying, finally binding in Marichyasana D. It doesn’t matter. Your children need you. And they need you now. It’s the great leveler of parenthood.

Naturally, we do our best to teach our kids manners and a basic respect for other people’s time and space. We remind them they are, in troth, not the Center of the Universe. Yet until they abscond with the car keys or, for late-bloomers, their betrothed, VIP Status will be demanded indiscriminately.

Such brazen entitlement can have the effect of grating on one’s very soul – especially when the invasion of certain basic privacies is involved, such as using the toilet. But we adapt, don’t we? After awhile, there we are, stranded mid-movement, half-clothed, coaching the fruit of our loins from the throne in lessons of self-discipline, tolerance, and understanding.

Now wizened into my fourth decade, I’ve decided these disturbances must be good for me, even when they don’t feel so good. They force me out of my irritable adult brain and challenge me to be nimble, sharp-witted, even funny, to employ levity or guidance or discipline, depending.

Really. They do.

If you stuck a bunch of those neurosensory electrodes on my head, I bet sparks would be flying in both the left and right hemispheres of my brain as I register my four-year-old’s four-line-octave yowl beckoning from the other end of the house, or feel the tiny padded grappling hooks of his remarkably strong hands seizing my thigh, triggering me to U-turn out of a given thought or action, remind him yet again to “speak to me in your real voice, the one I can understand, please” and, once the desired timbre has been achieved, land my grown-up ship on his toddler planet, which means squatting down, looking directly at his alternately angry/hurt/overexcited/delighted cherubin face and hearing the little bugger out.

That is one very long, unwieldy sentence because the (evidently) unalienable Rights of our Children send us through the emotional equivalent of a Spartan Race that is also very long and unwieldy. They test our mettle mercilessly. The very fiber of our being unravels and reweaves itself to the quickening pace of their adamant little hearts. Such trials leave us breathless, questioning our merit as Governing Bodies dedicated to the proposition that we actually know how to rear our indefensible offspring into Free and Independent Citizens.

It’s okay, people. Breathe easy. You’re not alone. Fyodor Dostoevsky, father of two, the first of whom died from pneumonia at three months of age, said this: “Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth.”

Remember this, my Parents in Arms. Re-mem-ber this. Even when you get pulled over for the second time in as many months because you’re half an hour late for work because you slept too long and had to skip a shower because Frankenstein’s mini-monster traded places with your rosy-cheeked daytime child, disrupting your sleep every hour on the hour to rage and wet the bed, then demand your presence in that bed, which you – the sport that you are – put fresh sheets on at 3:45 a.m., hospital corners and all, because…well, damnit, honey, it seemed easier than saying no and enduring the inevitable assault of protests that always fall on me while you inexplicably manage to sleep through it! GAH!!!

Let’s visit that Dostoevsky quote again, shall we?

Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth.

Here’s an example, a real-life one, to bring some fullness to Fyodor’s insight. It’s your classic interruption scenario:

Full-time-working-mom-me, at the kitchen sink, crashing furiously through the dishes while rehearsing a long suppressed comeuppance I planned to unleash upon an incompetent colleague the following day. So absorbed was I in this psychological cleansing that I failed to notice my eldest son, then five, standing at my hip holding something up in his hands and saying, “Mumma, look at this… Mumma, look what I made…”

I’m a sucker for inventiveness, so “what I made” snagged just enough of my attention to allow for a couple programmed responses like, “What you got there, buddy?” and, “Oh yeah? Mmm, good job,” my eyes still laser-trained on a soaking breakfast skillet thickly gummed with scrambled egg remains.

There were a few more exchanges like this, my occupational vengeance playing out in my mind, when my son screamed, “MUMMAAA!! LOOK! AT! ME!!!”

I stood there like an idiot, dumbstruck, hands dripping, finally turning my head towards him –his blue eyes like search lights in a tear-streaked face, and in his hands, a winged contraption made out of a plastic mini-ruler and a tea-steeping basket stuck into the end of a toilet paper roll all taped up and tied off with string.

“You weren’t even looking!” he said, explaining his anger in a way that felt to me so grown up in that moment, and so completely justified.

“I’m sorry, Jack. I’m looking now. Here I am.” Then I dried my hands and got down on my knees as he wiped his runny nose with a sleeve and walked me, piece-by-piece, function-by-function, through his little vehicle, which had the coolest, most ludicrous name that I’d pay cash money to remember now.

I think of this often. I’ve told the story to friends. It’s become a sort of touchstone, a lesson in how not to be a dipshit parent. Because, of course, my son wasn’t interrupting me. He was, by nature, pulling me out of a steaming pit of protracted overwrought political nonsense that I’d been sinking in for months. After that, I left it alone. And in the end, none of it mattered anyway.

I need to reframe the Founding Fathers analogy. As parents, we’re not so much trying to reclaim our independence as it once was. We’re trying to figure out how to lay new foundations for our families that, to quote the Declaration again, “seem most likely to effect (our) Safety and Happiness.”

Safety and Happiness. Now there’s something to declare. 

About That Day I Forgot My Cell Phone

Once you get past the panicky sweats, there’s a freedom in leaving the phone behind.

For such a substantial error, I can only blame my frazzled mind. Leaving the house in this condition had always been one of my biggest fears.

No, I didn’t forget to get dressed. Both my keys and wallet were tucked safely in my diaper bag. I was without something even more important: my cell phone.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t had such a great day planned. The sky was picturesque and the winds were calm. It was one of those days when you are grateful to be alive.

Oh, and did I mention it was a Saturday? Weekends are what we yearn for. They are our reward after a long week. Weekends are for family.

Almost immediately, I realized the severity of my mistake. Our friends were supposed to meet us here. We were at our local park and it was family day. Without my trusty communication device, how were they going to find us? Would I need to send smoke signals?

Unfortunately, I had an even bigger issue on my hands: photos. It was a beautiful day and we were at an amazing event. How was I going to capture that? Furthermore, how were grandma and that chick I went to high school with going to admire my pictures on Facebook? Sadly, there would be no posting frenzy on my end tonight.

Speaking of grandparents, how the hell did they live without constantly recording the memories? How did our parents do it?

Will I remember this gorgeous day? Will my kids?

I sighed and looked at the two moms in front of me. They were taking pics of their kids in the bouncy house. I couldn’t, so instead I looked up at the sky. It was breathtaking. The air was fresh. I was taking it all in. I was starting to feel a bit different. I was starting to feel freer. I was starting to feel calmer. The twitching and shaking associated with the absence of my lifeline completely ceased. My eyes went to my daughter enjoying the bouncy house. Her smile said it all. Maybe this day wouldn’t be so bad after all.

It was also a great day back in June of 1981. On my last day of school, my dad came to pick me up. We went to see “Superman 2.” Since it was opening day, the line of people wrapped around the block. The movie theater was packed. Later, we went to our local coffee shop for an early dinner. I got to order a hamburger, fries, and a Sprite. Afterwards, I got to pick out a toy at the store. There was no camera that day. Still, I remember. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world.

There was also no camera that summer when I was at my cousin’s house. Yet, we had a blast hanging in the basement during a terrible thunderstorm. We listened for the rumblings and screeched at the sight of lightning. Afterwards, we went out and splashed around in the puddles until we passed out from laughter.

Those events took place more than 30 years ago, but they are still forever captured in my heart.

I have many great memories. I also have some sad ones. Thus is life. However, on this day, nothing mattered but my own little family and that unbelievable sky.

They were offering free massages for adults at Family Day. Yes, massages at no cost. I had no excuse not to partake in the festivities. Who knows? I might have missed it completely if I was too busy staring at Instagram while I walked by the tent.

I had no excuses not to laugh at my daughter’s silly moves on the trampoline. I also could not miss the balloon my son almost let fly away.

I was able to capture the balloon myself. On this day, sans the cell phone, my hands were completely free.

Without my cell phone, I felt a little bit lighter.

There would be no pictures captured on this day, but that was okay.

A few years ago, during Hurricane Sandy, a bunch of my family’s videocassettes were destroyed due to a flood in the basement. I was devastated. Most of my sadness was due to the wonderful woman I always enjoying watching in those videos – my mom. She passed away from cancer 17 years ago.

No, I wouldn’t be able to see her or hear her again. But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember. Those days that she took me to the beach and slathered my freckled skin with sun block. The long talks. The endless laughs. Mom was always up for an adventure, and I must say, I treasure them all.

Today, at my daughter’s “stepping up” ceremony at school, I realized I forgot my iPad. Anxiety ensued. How was I going to take video of my daughter singing and dancing on her special day?

Instead, I took a deep breath. I held my son tightly in my lap. I watched the sea of cell phones in the air. I lived in the moment. I smiled. I cried.

I made a mental note to always remember this day and the joy that went along with it.

And I always will.