Wanted: Distraction Management (For Kids and Parents)

This post had several working titles including “Mommy’s Sorry She Has To Go To Work,” and “Your Focus Needs More Focus.” Either way, there was some serious working Mom guilt combined with a heavy dose of standard parental frustration going on this week.

Weekday mornings require the usual routine for all parties, including basics like getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth and getting assorted necessary items for the day in their designated places (lunch box, backpack, shoes, jackets…) My kids have been doing this all their lives, with varying degrees of support depending on their ages at the time. Currently, they are old enough to do it all for themselves. The drill has been practiced over and over and over.

And yet.

Pavlov’s dogs perform better than my kids.

Distractions are everywhere. And I’m not talking screens, as we don’t allow them in the morning. Physical distractions (oh look, it’s a Lego/book/cat/brother/sock — insert pretty much any given noun.) Mental distractions (staring into space). Emotional distractions (I’m so happy I’m going to skip around and around and around).

Because T eats her food molecule by molecule, a simple bagel can last a lifetime. (Pretty certain she would not survive in the wild.)

Because G cannot move three feet without finding a random Lego to build or a piece of paper from which to make his latest Origami creation.

Because T cannot brush her teeth without getting lost in the vacuum of her mind while staring at the mirror. If I don’t disrupt her, she could be rooted there for hours. (I’d love to know what she’s thinking, but even she doesn’t know.)

Because when I send G upstairs to turn off his bedroom light (for the third time), next thing you know, he has a nose in a book. (Not a bad thing, I know, but a distraction when the school bell will ring in less than five minutes. And school is more than five minutes away.)

You get the picture.

I suspect I am not alone in this quest to figure out how to handle the distraction management with grace and without completely losing my cool.

Which is what happened earlier this week, prompting lashings of working Mom guilt.

It wasn’t quite the standard morning. We actually needed to leave the house earlier than usual, as I had an appointment and, since my husband was away on business, my kids had to accompany me. We’d had the pep talk the night before. We agreed that we would cooperate, focus, get it done — even if it meant eschewing some playtime because our time was more compressed than on a “normal” morning. We even agreed that they could buy lunch at school instead of making their own lunches like they usually do — a rare “treat.”

And yet.

The morning was a complete clusterf**k. In retrospect, I should have seen this coming, prepared ahead logistically and steeled myself emotionally. But, reminder after reminder turned into nag after nag and eventually escalated into yell after yell. It culminated in us running anxiously to the car, all breathless and on the verge of tears. I promptly informed my kids that I was very disappointed in them. They had made me late.

Ugh.

The second the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. There was shameful, sad silence from the backseat. My beautiful, creative, high-spirited son hoarsely whispered, “We’re sorry we made you late again.” His sister, the whimsical one, tearfully echoed, “Yes Mama, we’re very sorry.”

I hate myself.

I’m the one who should be building them up, showing them how to roll with life’s challenges, how to “shake it off” or “let it go” (depending on whether you’re a Taylor Swift or Frozen fan). Instead, here I was squashing their spirits, trampling over their egos. I’m not setting a worthy example. Instead, I’m mandating that their innate need for creativity, free play and imagination be set aside to accomodate my timelines, my needs. I disgust myself.

And yet.

I have to get to work. So does my husband. As we move through our weekday frenzied mornings, our minds too are elsewhere — on deadlines, to-dos, on our smartphones and laptops. We, too, are distracted. Emails, texts, news feeds, tweets, calls. For me, as a working Mom, my actual work day starts the second I awake. This is my self-imposed tradeoff for the luxury of not physically getting into the office till 9.40 a.m. (since school drop-off is at 9 a.m..)

It’s all rush rush and we are all distracted. No surprise then that it’s a formula for stress and disappointment. Often, by the time I make it to my desk, I’m already exhausted.

And yet.

It’s not just the mornings; the evenings are similarly compressed and distracted. Shoes and jackets and backpacks are kicked off and discarded. Toys find their way to the dinner table. Unfinished homework needs finishing. Emails need answering (since I left the office at 5.20 p.m. to pick up the kids from their after-school program.) Dishes. Bath time, teeth brushing (cue shenanigans, bickering). Finally, bed and reading before they descend into the peace of slumber. More emails, unfinished work, deadlines to get a head start on. Fishing into their backpacks to discover a form that needs a signature, a party invitation. Who knows how long they might have been there.

My whole day — outside of time at the workplace — is spent trying to conquer all of these endless distractions and competing forces. How long can we continue this pace? I wonder. Is there an art to the distraction management that will make it all work better?

Because we could ALL use a little more zen.

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post and on Medium)

 

Working Mom Poll: Makeup Dilemmas

Most mid-week mornings, I pull into the parking lot at work, already running late and harried. And it’s there, in my car, that I hastily throw on my makeup. The goal of which is to mostly make me feel more put together/awake but also I feel it’s my duty to protect my co-workers from having to see their reflections in my shiny nose and forehead.

Like most working Moms, mid-week mornings are manic: trying to herd the kids while at the same time making ourselves presentable for the outside, professional world. Success (a sliding scale) largely depends on the age of your kids and how much of the morning routine they can do for themselves – but ultimately, kids are easily distracted and before you’ve had a chance to take a bite of toast, pack their lunches, iron anything (ha!) or hunt for library books, it’s time to hustle them – and you – out of the door and to school/preschool/daycare/work.

So I wondered, am I alone in my inability to apply makeup before leaving the house or do you, fellow working Moms, also find yourself slapping on the mascara and lipstick sitting in your car outside your office? You tell me.

The Grand Illusion: Mogul, Mom & Maid

A real conversation from early December:

Husband: “Honey, when will our Christmas cards arrive?”

Me: “I’m sorry, I haven’t even ordered them yet.”

Husband: “What? How come? We’re already receiving loads of cards and should be sending ours out now too.”

Me <insert snark> : “Oh, I didn’t realize. I’ve been lying here on the couch watching reruns of Desperate Housewife and filing my nails.”

Husband: “I know you are busy, I get it. But I’m surprised the cards aren’t done because you always seem like you have everything under control.”

BOOM. The moment of truth. It always seems like I have everything under control. Hahaha!

The reality is: I don’t. It’s all a thin veil or, rather, a grand illusion. Scratch the surface and there’s a hot mess of confused priorities, a healthy dose of anxiety, a fair amount of disorder, random spots of remarkable focus and OCD, a pinch here and there of laissez-faire and, more often than not, a wing and a prayer, a shrug and a nervous giggle.

Or, as a friend who is also trying to figure out this working Mom thing calls it: the sliding scale of incompetency.

Reality #2. Also back in early December, Liz O’Donnell, author of the new book Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman” asked me to contribute to a blog carnival with other working Moms, to share our tips and perspectives about our balancing acts. Irony: it was one of those weeks when all around me, life was exploding and there was no time to blog for me, let alone anyone else, let alone blogging about my balancing act! So, Liz, here’s my post, just a few weeks late …..

So, I ask myself, what of this grand illusion? Does it help or harm me? One the one hand, apparently I project this image of a confident working Mom, managing all that comes with it, with a smile on my face. This is good, surely? Heck, I even fool myself most of the time. I achieve this illusion, like so many other women, thanks to my ability to prioritize, multi-task and to turn on a dime when it’s really needed. It’s also thanks to several handy tools that help save some precious time and the wonderful invention that is Waterproof Post-it Notes which, quite literally, ensure the contents of my brain don’t disappear down the shower drain. (Buy them now …. hurry!)

On the flip-side, existing in this mode is a scary place. At any given point, there’s a terrifyingly strong chance that I will screw something up big time. The fragile card tower that I hold together all day and night is precarious. One missed deadline, one forgotten item at the grocery store, one overlooked play date invitation – not to mention the fun and games of hormones – and it can all come toppling down. The energy involved in keeping the cards propped up and balanced is exhausting.

So this is my balancing act. With the emphasis on the word ‘act’. But would I exchange it for not being a working Mom? Nope! This is my bed and I chose to lie in it.

Oh, and back to those Christmas cards. Yes I did get around to ordering them but so late that they ended up arriving on Christmas Eve. Have I had the chance to mail any out? No. Will I? The likelihood is probably not. Sorry folks. Because here’s reality #3 which, thanks to Dr. Seuss, I use day-in and day-out as a filter for the choices I make when prioritizing the 23697,2466,00000 things on this working Mom’s to-do list:

Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind!

I Am The Working Mom Who …

Needs to leave work at 5pm in order to safely pick up kids by 6pm.

Thinks she can squeeze in one more email, call or conversation.

Ends up leaving the office somewhere between 5.15-5.30pm.

Realizes she doesn’t have time to pee as she’s already running late.

Can’t walk straight to her car because she is responding to email.

Spends the entire drive either on the phone or emailing when stopped at lights.

Screeches into the parking lot as the clock turns to 6pm.

Apologizes to staff.

Every. Single. Day.

Our Beautiful Mess

For a while now, I’ve been pondering writing a blog post about stuff. All the stuff. How there’s just so much of it. Everywhere. And about the futility of trying to erase, structure or organize the stuff because it just multiplies, rearranges and disperses itself liberally all over the place, no matter how hard or how often you try to tame it. I was going to describe how the stuff makes me feel like I am out of control, unable to master it with the necessary formulae and discipline.

How every couple of months I go nuts and, armed with a trash bag I hurl sweeping armfuls of the stuff – no matter if it’s new, old, missing parts, Lego parts, home-made, store-bought, homework, artwork, party favor, more Lego parts, Happy Meal made-in-Taiwan piece of crap, even more Lego parts, plastic, paper, metal, recyclable, animal, mineral – into the bag and haul it off to the trash. Often several, large, misshapen bag loads before the overwhelming urge to trash everything gradually settles and the guilt creeps in. Was that wasteful? Did I “accidentally on purpose” just commit a cherished something to an early demise? Haven’t I really just made room for the next inexorable influx of stuff?

But I’ve had a change of heart.

I took a long hard look around my home, taking in every room, and I realized something. This mess, this unruly, chaotic mess, is our mess. It’s a complete reflection of our lives, replete with activity and creativity and disorganization and projects and presents. It mirrors how we are constantly on the move, producing, consuming and creating.

It’s a beautiful mess. And it makes me smile.

I’ll still try to organize it, filter it, minimize it. Sure, I’ll do a sweep from time to time to get rid of stuff no longer played with or used. Probably before birthdays and Christmas. But I’m not going to treat it like the persistent enemy, anymore. I’m not going to let it guilt or shame me.

It’s our beautiful mess.

p.s. Have you tried the A Beautiful Mess app? It’s very nifty. You can add doodles or scribbles to your photos. Here’s one I made earlier!

IMG_6386

p.p.s Also worth checking out, Jason Mraz’s A Beautiful Mess. I love it.

About Passover, Speedy Haggadahs and Human Rights

Last night we celebrated the first night of Passover with my cousins. I’ve not always been a fan of the whole Seder thing. As a kid, it was protracted and boring and, as an adult (and lapsed Jew) it always filled me with a mixture of identity crisis and homesickness. Last night’s was filled with the usual angst but also with a new respect for the intention of the Seder and how many of the ancient elements of the Haggadah (the prayer book used for the Seder) still apply to many of the political and social struggles faced today.

Before I get too heavy, I wanted to share this Two Minute Haggadah that a friend sent me—a funnily, abbreviated, modern version of a service that can last almost two hours or more before you even get to the matzah balls!

Back to the real stuff, below is a photo I snapped last night featuring one section of the Haggadah that spoke to me. Feels quite fitting, given that today is the first day that the Supreme Court tackles marriage equality which I fully support.

photo[1]

Coffee or Wine?

Your dental hygienist knows a lot about you, I’ve discovered. During my first few years here in the US, when I was either single and partying, or dating my soon-to-be-fiance, or enjoying the life-before-kids times, my dental hygenist would often remark about the red wine stains on my teeth. “Hey, I’m young (ish) and having fun,” I’d retort. And yes, I’ll brush more thoroughly, I’d promise as she hacked away at the stains with her evil implements.

(On a side note, may I just say that dental hygiene here in the US has been a real revelation to me. Y’all are way more serious about having sparkly whites that we were/are back home in the UK. I now feel it a necessary part of my acceptance into American society to have remarkably white teeth. But I digress.)

Dental visits over the last eight years have painted a different story. In large part, because the red wine stains on my teeth have mostly been replaced with coffee stains. Strong, black coffee stains. My dental hygienist always points this out and then, with an almost nonchalant non-sequitur, asks “So, how old are the kids now?” She knows, she gets it.

The thing is, my relationship with red wine has changed. Flash back to 1997-2000, three glorious years living in France when the wine was abundant, cheap and good. I became more knowledgable about wine regions and my preferences but, quite frankly, if it was red and in my glass, I’d drink it. Lots of it. No matter how much it cost or where it came from. And then I went and married someone in the wine industry. My supply of good wine became perpetual! Hoorah! And I became better educated and much more picky and wines I like and wines I don’t.

And then I had kids.

Child birth will do strange things to your palette (among other things.) After kid #1 was born, I went off red wine altogether, much to the chagrin of the husband. Fortunately, after kid #2 “popped out” (hahahaha) my desire for wine slowly returned and, in the almost six consequential years, has remained. But with new terms and conditions, namely:

  • I only drink the wines I like
  • I can only drink when eating
  • No more than a glass and a half or I get heartburn and/or an upset stomach
  • There will be wine on Friday evenings when I crave it most—or else
  • Cheese = wine

On the flip side, my relationship with coffee has remained consistent. While red wine is a select pleasure, enhancing specific moments, coffee is my lifeline. I cannot start the day without coffee. It is the very first thing I think of the moment I awake. I cannot exist without a large steaming cup of strong black coffee within approx 10 mins of my neurones firing up.

I was pondering my absolute and profound need for coffee the other morning and comparing it to my relationship with red wine. If I had to, I wondered, which would I give up? The answer was quite simple. But, just to be sure, I thought I’d conduct a brief poll with a few of my Twitter and Facebook pals. So I lobbed the seemingly innocuous question out there. Within nanoseconds—maybe even less—I was met with a barrage of visceral reactions! Before I share them, here was the final count:

  • Votes to keep coffee: 5
  • Votes to keep wine: 7
  • Undecided: 4

But it was the comments that cracked me up the most, including:

Are you kidding?

Is nothing sacred?

What am I being threatened with?

If my world no longer included those things, it wouldn’t be much of a world ;)

I feel like this is a trick question somehow.

I don’t know this Samantha but I don’t trust her ;)

I plan on giving up both…shortly after I give up oxygen.

So, you, yes you over there sipping your Sunday morning coffee – which would you give up, if you had to: coffee or wine?

P.S. Get your teeth cleaned.

A Letter to Dr Seuss

Dear Dr Seuss,

Allow me to introduce myself: I am Sam. Yes, Sam I Am. For the last eight years, I’ve spent LOTS of time with your books and I’ve some things I need to get off my chest.

I have to confess that the first four years were torturous, truth be told. You see, my little ones were at that stage when they wanted to be read the same book over and over. And over and over. And over. I became sick and tired of Green Eggs & Ham, the Cat in the Hat, There’s a Wocket in my Pocket and others. I mean there’s only so many times you can read, and re-read and then read again, those rhythmic lines and words without wanting to tear your hair out or bang you head against something hard. Fortunately, these were also the years when my kids couldn’t yet read and were blithely oblivious to my skipping lines and even pages, which I would do a LOT just to expedite matters.

Then my kids become early readers. And I gradually realized the genius of your books, especially ones like Go Dog Go and Hop on Pop. Words cleverly assembled, rhymed, reversed and scrambled, forcing their developing brains to focus, sound out words, take their time. As my kids started to be able to read these books for themselves, I could see their pride forming and reading confidence grow.

Naturally, they started bringing home more of your books every week from the school library. Books they wanted me to read to them because they were complex, long, filled with ridiculously non-sensical words, creatures and situations. Find me a parent who, weary at the end of the day, really wants to put themselves through such tongue calisthenics? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of silliness, creativity and all that is good and goofy but really, these book were too much for this tired, working mama.

And then we watched the movie, The Lorax. And a light bulb went off and my whole relationship with you changed! I saw your genius. More than just a wrangler of words, I realized you’re a philosopher, a commentator on society and, most importantly, a voice of inspiration. Your simple phrases make profound statements—better-sounding to me, quite frankly, than any catechism or sermon I’ve ever heard. (Here’s 30 of your finest quotes.) Your books are life lessons to the young and old, inspiring us to be who we are, think for ourselves, take chances (try new foods!), read, boldly forge our way in the world—and to care for others, no matter how small.

So, dear Dr Seuss, on this day, March 2, 2013, your birthday, I say thank you, thank you, thank you!

Love,

Sam I Am

My Avocado Dilemma

I woke up super early this morning. Actually I was awakened by my five-year who was evidently dreaming about something that didn’t work out for her and was crying out “I want it my way,” in her sleep. Well, don’t we all, sweetheart? After that, I couldn’t get back to sleep, my mind racing through the never-ending to-do list. So up I got and went downstairs.

As my coffee was brewing, my eye was drawn to an avocado sitting alone on the windowsill, where we had placed it about five days earlier to catch the sun and ripen. I gave it a squeeze.

Tell me, what is better than a perfectly ripe avocado?

But then dilemma set in. What to do with this solo avocado in the next 24 hours before its splendid green turns to mushy brown?

I figure I have two options – one involving my stomach and one involving my face.

First, the face. Winter is a bitch to my pathetic British skin. Put simply, my face is falling off, no matter how much water I drink, moisturizer I slather or how long the humidifier runs. I’m thinking this avocado could easily be mixed with some honey, oatmeal or yogurt to make an unctuous face mask that might salvage my skin. After all, it’s Friday and I’m working from home so there’s no-one to notice how strange I might look, sitting at my desk resembling a green monster. Fortunately, no Skype meetings today and hopefully no-one will FaceTime me!

But then again, there’s my tummy. All the different, glorious ways I could eat this delightful avocado! Maybe I could just slice it in half and drizzle it with the heavenly dark chocolate balsamic vinegar I recently bought? Or maybe I could squirt some lime on it and  grill it, loaded with cheese (recipe here.) Or, or …

Choices, choices.

Happy Friday folks, hope there’s a perfectly ripe avocado in your future.

For the Love of …. Doing Nothing

I love doing nothing. It’s right up there with eating. And watching TV. And sleeping (which, I guess, is just doing nothing with your eyes closed.) I long to do nothing.

Back in my single, pre-kid days, I excelled at doing nothing. I practiced long and hard. Put in a lot of time and effort, mastering the art and skill of doing nothing. It was lovely, indulgent, righteous. I also did a lot of stuff: partying, studying, working hard, traveling, moving to new countries, making new friends. But there was always the option of doing nothing.

These days, there is not a lot of time available for doing nothing. Kids school, kids activities, kids play dates, school vacation, domesticity, family and a career all have this horrible way of getting in between me and my favo(u)rite pass-time. Society imposes this crazy requirement for being busy, as if a full schedule is the key to fulfillment. I beg to differ. The schedule is what causes the most heartburn in my life, especially as working parent. The schedule is one of the few things my husband and I argue over. Who is picking up which kid? Who gets to stay home to cover the kids’ early release days/snow days/sick days/school vacation day? Whose meeting is more important? Whose schedule/employer is more flexible?

Because the weeks are so crazy, we try as a family to do nothing at the weekends. We try not to pack these precious two days with outings, activities, errands, parties, play dates and socializing. However it doesn’t work. There are always errands, parties, play dates and socializing. But that’s cool. As long as there are a few hours tucked away, reserved for vegging out on the couch watching a movie, hanging in the backyard, lazing in bed, taking a long bath.

There is however a really, really fine balancing act, I’ve found, between organizing stuff for the kids to do and letting them play freely. Here’s what can happen when you let them do nothing:

a. They play quietly
b. They get creative
c. They break stuff
d. They break each other
e. All or some of the above

It is currently day three of school vacation week. I’m trying to perfect a formula that mixes a variety of planned and spontaneous activities with free time for doing nothing.

So far, the kids have only broken one piece of furniture. The house looks like a tornado blew through it. Laundry is piling up.

It’s not exactly the kind of doing nothing I’d like to be doing on vacation. But it’s fun.

p.s. I’m not including a picture because I can’t be bothered to search for one.

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