After the Newtown school shootings many parents found themselves hugging their children more, being more patient with them, finding more time to get down on their level and play. Similarly, a friend of mine recently made big changes to her life after the sudden death of a four-year-old in her hometown who was a playmate to her own children. She began a new routine including more time for herself and her body. Also her appreciation for everything about her children grew.
It's a basic human truth that most of us don't stay in such a state of appreciation when not in the face of tragedy.
A week or so after Newtown, I found myself marveling at the size of my three-year-old's smooth little fingers as I dried them in a public bathroom. This slow, sublime, moment was very different than the usual rush to get out of there before someone else needed to come in.
I often wish that state could last forever and have wondered what I might do to improve my appreciation of the days (and nights) I have with my toddler and her six-year old sister. Recently I've tested out different suggestions from various reading and the web. Below is a list of what's worked:
• Put Some Love Into It: One time I was making my daughter's cumbersome bed for what felt like the fifteenth day in a row when she was having trouble with nighttime accidents. Testy as can be, I suddenly found myself thinking that if I put all the love I had for her into making the bed, I would feel so much better. Instantly, I forgot that I had a graduate degree, a neck ache, and a long list of things to do that day, and I felt transcendent -- some would say closer to God.
So when you find yourself cursing the eighth disgusting mess you've dealt with that day already, try putting all your love for your family into it and see if it doesn't help let some light into the gloom.
•Turn Off: Turning off your phone, especially if it's 'smart', is one of the easiest ways for most of us to significantly bump up our attention and focus on the present. I notice that even if I put the phone on vibrate, or in another room, I find myself checking it when I see my kids are otherwise occupied. When it is all the way powered down, I get it through my skull that there's no reason to go through turning it back on just to get distracted -- what's important is right in front of me.
•Gratitude Journal: I used to keep an Oprah style gratitude journal, so I went back to that, leaving it by my bedside lamp to help me remember before lights out. In it, I try to list at least five specific things that happened that day with my kids that I'm grateful for. I try to keep to specifics because the broad generalities, like: my kids are generally healthy and happy, are easy to come up with, but it's the actual daily events that I'm more interested in, like: my daughter read her little sister an entire book three times today.
•Post-it Up: Jot down a few ideas about what it is you're trying to accomplish here -- set the intention. Then create little reminders on note cards or post-its (best invention ever, thank you Romi and Michele!) and place the reminders around your house. Next to the bathroom mirror and by the laundry machine are good places to post. Right now, there's a purple post-it in my bathroom that reads, "Enjoy every little breath."
•Planned Neglect: I once asked an octogenarian artist how he managed to produce so much art over the years. He told me about something he called "planned neglect." He said that he had to force himself to ignore some of the household chores that needed to get done every single day in order to prioritize his art. All these years later, nothing bad has happened to him as a result of letting laundry and dishes pile up -- and the work he had to show for this seemed stunningly fulfilling.
I find one of the biggest challenges to staying present with my kids are of the demands of the home, and being home with two little wrecking crews create so many of those demands, don't they? But lately I've been trying to lower the standard of what I need to have done each day in order to feel that I'm taking care of my home (believe me, the bar wasn't stunningly high to begin with). Sometimes breakfast dishes don't get done until I'm cooking dinner. Sometimes the house isn't all the way picked up at the end of the day. Becoming more relaxed about domesticity has really helped me not feel like I need to constantly pull away from the present moment, whatever it holds.
As usual when I cavalierly hand out parenting advice, I caution anyone who heeds it to go easy. Try starting with just one of these things above and then perhaps switch to another if it doesn't do the trick for you. The last thing we want to do is worry too much about not appreciating our kids enough, because nothing makes you feel unappreciative like that kind of guilt.
If you've already faced personal tragedy to a great degree, perhaps you don't need these techniques. But I hope we can all start trying to live in a world where you don't need to face down death to appreciate life. Life, after all, is the name of the game.