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?”
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).
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.
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?