Whether you're up to your elbows in strained peaches and late for your “Mommy and Me” classes or writing against a deadline and packing for an 8-person camping trip, parenthood is all about juggling. We keep so many balls in the air that we are very reluctant to add even one more, especially if the new ball isn't something that will directly benefit our family.
Sadly, a ball that very seldom makes it into the juggling rotation is “time for ourselves.” In an ideal world there'd be a Parent Spa where we could go once a week (secure in the knowledge that our kids were being lovingly cared for, of course) to rest, read, chat, and pamper ourselves. Frankly, there've been times I'd have settled for a half-hour nap.
What gets me through is having a rich inner life. No, I don't mean sex fantasies (though that helps too, of course); I'm talking about what the life-coach-and-yoga set call “mindfulness.”
Back in the days when I had the time to read things that were more complicated than “Lather. Rinse. Repeat,” I delved into different philosophies for fun. (I know.) Mindfulness is a cornerstone of Buddhist meditation, and simply put it means paying close attention to your body, thoughts and emotions.
Of course, as a parent you can't focus your senses completely on the sensation of the bubbles in the dishwater or the sound of Dvorak's New World Symphony. As soon as you do, a toddler will decide that his diaper would make a fine paintbox or a teenager will do something that she will later try to explain away with, “Well, you never told me NOT to do it.” This is where the Attention Duality Super-Power comes into play.
You know what I mean: Before you had kids you couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, but after you became a parent you discovered that your mind can multi-task. You can be up on a stepladder, busily scrubbing root beer off the chandelier, and yell “Quit picking at that!” to an unseen kid 3 rooms away without even having to THINK about it. You can be deep in REM sleep, enjoying a scholarly dream involving Jensen Ackles, a paintbrush and a bucket of Hershey's Syrup, and know exactly what time your teenager inserts his key in the lock of the back door. There's a part of your mind that's permanently set on “Kid.”
Since you now know you have this power, use it to sneak a couple of extra hours into your day by standing outside yourself and becoming aware of what you're doing. Yes, on one level you're sweeping the kitchen floor again; on another level, you're clearing obstructions out of your path and calming your mind. When you're weeding, don't spend the time anxiously going over the rest of your to-do list in your head: feel the earth under your fingers, bask in the warmth of the sun and smell the flowers. Don't just scrub your face before bed: Notice the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water, the texture of the cloth. If you're kept waiting in the dentist's office, don't tense up; be grateful for the extra gift of time alone in your own mind, and focus on how much you like that color of blue on the receptionist's shirt.
Mindfulness may be the seventh step along the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment, but it is also what separates us from the animals: nothing more nor less than consciousness. You may be cleaning the toilet, but you are also following in the mental footsteps of all the great philosophers before you – you are thinking, and therefore you ARE. Inside your head, you choose the landscape you see.
Another way to phrase it is: These moments going by are your life. Don't forget to live them.