“Mommy, make a happy face at me.”
I look up from the glow of my laptop, irritated, hearing for perhaps the tenth time, that day, my three-year-old son’s persistent request.
“Mommy’s working, honey. Please go downstairs and play legos.”
Tantrum, flailing, stomping, sibling pinching ensue. Consequences are meted out. Justice is served. Repeat cycle.
It has, of course, occurred to me that I spend too much time engrossed in screens and interacting with virtual characters when the very real characters in front of me are melting into figurative puddles of spilled milk and clementine peelings. But come on, who can give their full attention for 9 + hours a day without any kind of break? I deserve a little down time. I’m just going to check in, I’ll be quick.
All of which is true, of course. Parenting in twenty-first century America can be ridiculously isolating – particularly the stay at home variety. And even the most extroverted parent on the block (which I emphatically am not) needs a little mid-day recharge in order to finish the solo shift strong and at a pleasant speaking volume.
But that isn’t what I’ve been doing behind my screen for minutes stretched embarrassingly into hours, hiding in plain sight in the glow of a laptop or a smartphone, accruing bits and pieces of stolen “me time” whilst the kids flail about at my feet, begging for attention. Any kind of attention, as their deteriorating behavior demonstrates quite clearly, will do.
I’ve spent the past several months rationalizing my behavior because I’m recently postpartum and newborns are hard and I work from home so they can have mommy around, it’s good enough that I’m physically present and, most shamefully, at least if I’m distracted I’m not tempted to yell at them.
Except I was tempted, often times more tempted, because instead of growing in patience and virtue and tolerance for childish appetites for multiple story recitations and block tower smashing, I was peppering our days together with long chunks of “Mommy’s here but isn’t actually here time.”
In short, I wasn’t in great parenting shape, because I have been spending the lion’s share of our days trying desperately to escape parenting.
I think it hit me hardest when our eldest, a mature three, dropped his nap. It was right after our youngest was born and suddenly, with three kids three and under, I had lost my precious chunk of uninterrupted mid-day productivity. Rather than pivoting and adjusting, I got stuck in a rut of denial, choosing distraction as a coping mechanism. When Pope Francis speaks about parents needing to waste time with their children, I think he was emphasizing the “with.” I, however, was choosing to focus on the “waste.”
I’m not claiming to have found some magical key to unlocking the secrets of stay-at-home happiness. Most days I’m lucky to still be smiling when the clock strikes dinner. I have realized how much I’ve been relying on outside props and fingertip distractions to keep me going, and how much I’ve come to view my children as little resentment-inducing interruptions to my very important tasks of emailing all the people and pinning all the recipes and furniture makeovers.
A few days ago I started a new thing. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s an old thing and I’m just late to the game. I’m calling it internet-averse living. It’s where I don’t open the computer except to do super specific things that I can’t do without a search engine, like look up the recipe for a paleo-friendly vinaigrette dressing for our dinner salad and pinpoint the ingredients for a rabbit-deterrant solution for the garden (aka our 2 solitary pumpkin plants.) In both instances, the internet functioned as a tool that helped me parent, not a crutch that propped me up while I failed to do so.
Listen, mom glued to your smartphone on the park bench, scrolling your newsfeed while your precious little people do backflips off the jungle gym: I hear you. I have sat where you sit, and I will probably be there again sometime later this week. I’m not judging you. Parenting in general and motherhood in particular is exhausting and challenging and sometimes, frankly, it’s really boring.
But I’m learning, incrementally and painfully, that the most mundane moments are essential components to the growth and development of my motherly temperament. Physical pain is one thing, (and I’d include sleep depravation in that category) but mental pain in the form of self denial, boredom, or loneliness is a whole other arena I’m learning that we are expected to do battle in.
I can’t always escape. Sometimes, inexplicably, they only want me. Nothing else will satisfy them except to see my face, to catch my eye, or to hold my unadulterated attention.
Sound like anyone else you know?
So I’m trying. I’m learning so slam the screen shut at the sound of little feet pitter pattering into the kitchen in search of yogurt tubes and oatmeal. I’m trying to make my initial impulse one of supplicating prayer rather than vegetative scrolling. It’s not easy, because I’m not very good at it. And it turns out parenting, like so much else that is worthwhile and larger than oneself, requires little other than repetitive acts of the will to accomplish.
It’s not so much dependent on a specific skill set or a temperament which naturally finds miniature humans delightful, but on the willingness of a larger human to put aside her needs moment by moment, until an appointed time.
So mama? Step away from the screen. What you’re looking for is sitting right in front of you, but you’re going to have to dig deep to see it.
Love, your exhausted comrade in arms.