Inside: Three simple strategies to be a better mom in 15 minutes a day. It will help you slow down and just be there with your kids without doing anything or thinking of things on your to-do list.
When I first became a mom, I spent hours sitting on the floor watching my children play. I was thrilled to have this front-row seat to their incredible journey of discovery. I knew they enjoyed it, too, because I could see them sparkle in the glow of my attention.
But soon after I had my third child, something changed. It became hard for me to relax into watching. I always seemed to be half a step behind where I wanted to be on my to-do list. I would sit down on the floor and immediately get up to move a load of laundry from washer to dryer. I would return and sit down but jump right up, remembering that I had to move the swimming lesson from Thursday to Wednesday. And order a bigger swimsuit for my daughter right that moment to get it before Wednesday. And did I water my plants recently?
After I had my fourth child, things got only worse. I became the mom I never wanted to be. Rushed and tense, with a furrowed brow and hurried step. Always walking away from my kids to make lunch, clean up a mess, prepare a math lesson or set up their science experiment. It was all things I was doing for them. But did it really matter if what they really needed and wanted was my undivided attention?
I realized that if I didn’t want my kids’ most prominent memory of their childhoods to be that of my retreating back, I had to come up with some strategies to relax into being with them without thinking of all the things that needed to be done.
But how could I turn my To-Do Brain off? How could I just be with my kids without talking, reading, playing, or directing their play?
With trial and practice, I came up with not one but three strategies that work
every almost every time. The best part is that they can be applied no matter what is the age of your child, from baby through teenagers to grownup. It might even work with your spouse (just replace “cars and trucks” with “a smartphone”).
Here they are in order of difficulty. Number #3 is my favorite, but it might be hard if you have never done it before.
3 ways to be more present with your child
Strategy #1: I’m going away
Find your child in play, sit down nearby, and imagine that after this activity, you’re going far away on a long trip. Next, really see your child as he is. You want to study every inch of the child’s face, memorize each aspect of his expression, learn every nuance of his voice and discover his favorite words. Would you be able to recall his features with your mind’s eye when you are away?
I find that at the beginning of this activity, thoughts such as “I must start the dinner prep” pop into my head at regular intervals. But after a few (or a few dozens) “Not now. I’m doing something important” and “People are more important than potatoes (for dinner),” I can easily lose myself for 15-30 minutes just watching my child.
With repetition, this activity gets easier and more natural.
Just don’t forget to breathe.
I know from personal experience that only a brief flashback to my list can initiate a cycle of hyperventilation. I could be sitting and watching my child play when a thought flashes through my head, “Buy milk,” and immediately, my fitness watch would start vibrating. It means that the mere thought of milk would send my heart racing so hard that my watch thinks I am actually running. How could a gallon of milk have such power over me? It can’t unless I let it. Breathe!
Strategy #2: Did I fill you with enough love to last you for a lifetime?
The same as above: I sit nearby and watch my child play. Only now I think about my child’s long and happy life ahead and imagine myself filling my child with love—with so much love that it can last a lifetime. I think of the time far in the future when I will not be around anymore. I want to make sure that, if nothing else I did while I had the chance, I gave her enough love.
If my child asks me why I am looking at her with such a strange smile, I say that I am filling her with love. I even ask the child to come over for a hug so I can squeeze some extra love into tight corners.
If you find it hard to make time for this activity, put it on your calendar: “8:15 am—fill my child with love”.
Strategy #3: Loving-kindness meditation
This is my absolute favorite strategy, and I use it not only to be present with my kids but also to calm myself down when I am angry with them. It’s hard to be angry with someone while you are sending them love and kindness.
I initially learned about loving-kindness meditation in a yoga class. An instructor invited us to send love and kindness to the people who had wronged us. But the next morning, when I was standing at the head of my yoga mat with hands in a prayer position (hoping to sneak in a few minutes before kids come down to breakfast), I found myself thinking of my children as I whispered, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be loved.”
It felt wonderful to be saying these words, starting the day with wishing my children well. I now make loving-kindness a regular part of my life.
At times, I can move myself to tears just by silently saying the words “may you feel my love now.”
Maybe the best part of this strategy is the pause we take to think of how much we love our children and why we ever thought that parenting was a good idea in the first place.
Try it right now. Say your child’s name and then, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be loved,” and think about what your words mean to you. Try saying the words out loud. Multiple times a day. And especially when you are mad.
Science shows that if you keep doing it regularly, you will become more loving, strengthen the brain circuits involved in empathy, and feel happier, too.
I find that the loving-kindness meditation softens my heart and brings my love closer to my children so they (and I) can really feel it. I also find that after you spend fifteen minutes wishing your children well, it’s really hard to be mad at them for little things like peeing all over the toilet seat or leaving a refrigerator door wide open (again).
The wording will depend on your particular preference.
This is my loving-kindness meditation:
May you be filled with loving-kindness.
May you be held in loving-kindness.
May you feel my love now and always.
May you be safe.
May you accept yourself just as you are.
May you be happy, healthy, and strong.
May you know the natural joy of being alive.
May you be free.
You can change the wording to better match your personality and your circumstances. You can make it shorter, simplify it, or think about specific things that your child struggles with. E.g., “May you be free from the social anxiety and the pain of being rejected.”
If you are thinking, “I’ll never remember all of these lines. I haven’t had a full night of sleep since I got pregnant with my first child ten years ago,” here is my memory trick. Write down your loving-kindness meditation on five index cards and spread them around the house. Don’t forget to put one in your purse (to peruse when you are stuck in traffic or during your kids’ cello lessons).
If you feel silly just thinking of trying loving-kindness meditation, think of all the benefits of doing it (read: this, this, and this). Yep! You can connect with your kids by sitting next to them without your phone AND make yourself and them healthier and happier in the process. Give it a try!
But they want to play with me!
Of course, once you sit next to your children, kids might start explaining what they are doing or want to make you part of their game. That’s a good thing! It’s much worse when they don’t feel connected enough to want to invite you into their world.
Sometimes it’s easy to jump in, let go of the to-do list, and be a kid again. It feels nice to push cars around instead of doing grown-up activities like paying bills or giving a dental checkup to a stuffed dinosaur instead of scrubbing a toilet.
However, after a decade of pretend tea parties and spectacular pirate adventures, the idea of pretending to eat another fake cookie or feigning surprise that the train fell off the tracks can be daunting. On some days, even scrubbing a toilet might seem like a better option than another “Let’s be pirates. Say, Arrgg, Mom.” That’s when the three strategies I outlined above come in useful. Pretend you are going away for a long time. Ask yourself, did I fill my kids with enough love to last them a lifetime? Look at them and wish them health and happiness.
When you look at your kids with loving eyes …
and see how cute they are…
When you wish them health and happiness…
and remember how fast they will be up and out in the world living their grown-up lives away from you…
… Then you can let go of a grocery list and sink full of dishes, make peace with another-pretend-tea-boredom, and be present.
Here are my three strategies for being present with my kids when it’s hard to let go and enjoy them. What do you do to slow down and be with your kids?