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Sometimes I Ignore My Children, and That's OK

I'm all for introspection and self-analysis and balance and boundaries. I think our kids deserve our time and attention. But I can't help thinking that the idea that children require our 100 percent undivided attention 100 percent of the time has gone a little too far.
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I believe it's important to be present with my kids. I believe in quality time, and in quantity time, and I believe that children deserve attention and love. These are ideals that I strive for as a parent, but sometimes I can't help thinking that in the pursuit of better parenting, we've swung the pendulum a bit too far. Let me explain what I mean.

There is a woman at my church who has adult children, one of whom is a very public figure who is quite open about his faith. As such, many women in the church look to her as a mentor figure, and she relishes this as well. She's a wonderful woman and there is much I admire about her, but one of her resounding admonishments to the young moms in the church is to make sure they are off their cell phones and computers when their children are awake. She's actually been known to pull women aside and check in with them on this matter. "Are you staying off your cell phone when those kids are awake?" she'll ask with a serious look, and the young mothers feel dutifully shamed into changing their habits. I know moms who have made being screen-free while the kids are awake a matter of accountability in their lives.

Similarly, last year there was a sanctimonious letter making the rounds on the Internet... an open letter to a mother who was (gasp) looking at her cell phone at the park. I'm not even linking to it, but the gist was that this mother was missing out on her daughter's childhood by looking at her phone instead of watching her daughter the whole time she was at the park.

Look, I appreciate the impulse here to encourage parents to be present. We are living in a distracted technological age and we would all do well to take a good, hard look at how the screens in our lives pull us away from our relationships. I'm all for introspection and self-analysis and balance and boundaries. I think our kids deserve our time and attention. But I can't help thinking that the idea that children require our 100 percent undivided attention 100 percent of the time has gone a little too far. In fact, I would argue that it's a decidedly 21st-century first-world problem to try to figure out how to avoid working on other tasks when our children are around.

Mothers have had to multitask since the dawn of time. In fact, I can't think of another era or culture where mothers have had the luxury (or pressure) to do doing nothing but sit and relish what their child is doing at any given moment... unless that mother was part of the aristocracy. (And even then, the mother was probably not doing this.) Women have had to farm, to work, to cook, to clean, to do laundry... and in the midst of that, of course, loving mothers find time to make meaningful connections with their children. Modern conveniences like dishwashers and washing machines and pre-washed, pre-chopped veggies mean that we won't spend as much time as Ma from Little House on the Prairie on household tasks... but modern conveniences have also shifted the way we spend our time. Checking email is the new churning butter. I don't need to sew a dress today, but I may need to pay bills online. Mothers still have things that need to get done, and there shouldn't be shame just because some of those things require us to sit with a laptop or a cell phone.

I'm going to take in moments, and make moments with my kids. Even in the midst of my workload this summer, we've made a ton of great family memories. We've played and snuggled and had fun together. But I'm not going to assume that every minute of the day is a Moment. Ain't nobody got time for that. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to be precious about your kid's childhood, and a time when you just have to get other sh*t done. (I've loosely paraphrased that verse.)

I've been living in this tension this summer, with all four kids home from school and a job that still requires me to sit at a computer every day. It's easy to give in to this pressure to feel like a bad mom for working when my kids are awake. It's easy to feel judged when I answer emails from the park, or chat on my cell phone while they play in the front yard. But I try to keep in mind that there are actually values that guide my decision, too. Here are a few of them.

I am not a butler.

Nor am I a maid. I don't jive with the idea that we need to "stand in waiting" in case our kids need something. I don't want my kids to assume that this is my role, either. I'm available -- always. But I'm going to preoccupy myself in the moments that I'm not needed, or when they are preoccupied. The idea of standing-in-waiting for my children is ludicrous. If everyone is engrossed in play or in a book, I'm going to find something to do. I may watch and film and cheer when they master the bike ramp for the first and third and fifth time. But by the 100th pass? I might find something else to do. And I think my kids may be OK, because I'm quite fine with them understanding that not every single moment in life is about them.

I am not a cruise director.

I don't want my kids to rely on me for their own good time. I want them to learn how to be creative, and to handle boredom. I want them to use their own resources to discover imaginative play. They don't actually need me hovering around them, and when left to their own devices, I see really great things emerge... like cooperation, independence, and critical thinking skills.

I am a separate person with her own feelings, interests, and passions.

I really believe that seeing parents as real and separate human beings is the first step to children learning empathy. I want my kids to understand that I have passions and interests, too... beyond just being a mom. I love being a mom. But I also want my kids (and especially my girls) to understand that this is not my only role. Sometimes I'm on the computer around them, and I often explain what I'm doing. They know I'm writing a story and that this is both my job and something I love. Sometimes I talk on the phone in front of them; it might be an important phone conversation or I might be chit-chatting with friends because I HAVE FRIENDS, TOO. And I'm totally fine with my kids seeing me enjoy those relationships. I'm OK with letting my kids witness the fullness of who I am as a person... a mom, a wife, a writer, a friend.

I think kids need to understand that the world does not always revolve around them. While they are always my priority in the big-picture scheme of life, there is an ebb and flow in the day-to-day, and sometimes other things will require my attention. I don't want to shame anyone who has made different decisions. If you've made commitments to be off your phone or computer, more power to you! But I do think we need to lower the shame about moms occasionally diverting their attention away from their kids for other pursuits, even if it's on the phone or computer. I think if we make sure to put in the time and attention when it matters, our kids are gonna be all right.

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