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Enjoy Your Kids

By Megan Headley

Being present as a parent can make both the fun times and the struggles something to savor.

Have you ever noticed how pregnant women and parents with little kids seem to naturally attract all kinds of unsolicited advice? When I was pregnant, so many people told me, “Try to enjoy your child. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the time goes.”

What, exactly, does that even mean?

I wondered for a bit. But ultimately, like so much other unsought wisdom sent my way in those long months of pregnancy, I cast it aside.

And, for the first three months of Madison’s life, I did think that I was enjoying her. It’s true, I was a bit anxious to get back to work and back to taming the garden, and the holidays were just around the corner, and… well, there was always something. And sometimes I would even wonder how, exactly, does one enjoy the 3 a.m. shrieking that never ends, the explosive diapers, and teething that gets worse with every tooth?

I remember clearly the moment when everything changed.

My mom had come up for the weekend to help with Christmas shopping. It had been a fun day, although as usual I felt mentally exhausted having to arrange every outing around my 4-month-old daughter’s demanding feeding schedule. By that Saturday evening I was out of breath from picking up toys and dirty bibs, and wondering how a child who could barely move on her own could leave such a mess in her wake.

Walking past the nursery door I saw my mom rocking her granddaughter. Madison was already long asleep, so I asked my mom if she wanted a hand moving her to the crib, or a book to read while she sat.

Mom shook her head. “I’m happy,” she whispered. Then she closed her eyes, tucked her nose against Madison’s head, and smiled.

Out of nowhere, I felt a vicious clawing at my heart.

That smile, that peaceful look of complete contentment, was what I had signed on for. That was supposed to be my bliss. Why was I standing in the doorway with a handful of dirty laundry battling the most intense jealousy I’d ever felt?

In that moment, I finally took that unsolicited advice, and put a priority on enjoying my child.

What does it mean to be present?

Without putting a name to it, I began striving that day to be more “present” in the moments I spent with my daughter. I didn’t realize at the time that my goal was mindful parenting. Psychology Today describes mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present… Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

Like so many people, I’ve spent my entire life looking forward and scheduling things for the future. I’ve forgotten how to enjoy the here and now. Even with the goal of being a better parent, mindfulness has been a tougher journey than I ever imagined. But I’ve learned six things to keep in mind in order to be truly present with my daughter.

1. Mindfulness can be messy.

I have found that being more present has made me more forgiving of major messes. The more I focus on being present with my daughter, the more I appreciate her delight in the squish of soft mud between her fingers or the tornado of toys that litters our living room.

Among other things, Madison and I spend a great deal of time in the garden together. Planting is a meditative activity for me, and a world of wonder for her. At first it was difficult for me to watch her sink into the dirt and gently spread it over her legs like it was suntan lotion. (The laundry! The washing!) But mindfulness means focusing on now— not an hour from now, when it’s time to shake the dirt out of her pants or the grass from her hair. Mindfulness, for me, has meant taking a deep breath and watching the small smile on her face as she experiences a new tactile sensation, and for possibly the first time brings something to her nose to explore, rather than her mouth.

Somehow, laundry and cleaning always sort themselves out, even without me worrying about them in advance.

2. Help when asked.

At 1 year old, Madison already gives off the impression that she knows everything there is to know about life. So when she comes tugging at my pantleg as I make dinner, holding up a doll who needs her bottle, I put down what I’m doing and fix what needs to be fixed. Who knows how much longer she’ll believe I can fix everything?

Of course, it’s not always reasonable for me to stop what I’m doing to attend to my daughter. And there are definitely times when I think she benefits more from my saying “no” or “wait.” But acknowledging her problems and offering solutions forces me to stop and recognize the things that are important to her now. It’s a good habit to build for the future, when the crises will be much more significant.

3. Accept the bad times.

There are definitely times that are harder to enjoy than others. For example, diaper changing is a chore that I dread, because Madison hates it. On the days when I’m doing a better job of enjoying myself, I find that it’s easier to accept her changing-time contortions as her reminder to me that she hates to be confined. Recognizing that she’s acting out as a way to express herself, and not simply to upset me, makes it easier to brainstorm a way to distract us both with a song or game, rather than simply wishing I were somewhere else.

Viewing the worst tantrums as a way of testing limits— a process that every child goes through—has made it easier to accept the bad times and remain focused on what my daughter is accomplishing by acting out.

4. Put away the toys.

It was seductively easy to feed my child with a smartphone in one hand, watching the world outside through the screen and ignoring the world beginning in my arms. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one with this problem. The Wall Street Journal once posed the question, “Is high-tech gadgetry diminishing the ability of adults to give proper supervision to very young children?”

I’m not going to claim I’ve given up entirely the habit of reading the news and blogs online. But I have tried to become more selective of when I glance at the phone. It doesn’t come out until we’ve finished studying one another’s faces, and she has fallen into a restful sleep. I t’s never touched during dinner, or the half hour before bath when the entire family is most relaxed.

And if I must use the phone for some other purpose, I try to explain to her what I’m doing and involve her in the action: “See the picture, Madison? It looks like it will rain today, so we’ll go to the library instead of the park.” I don’t want to send the message that the screen is more important to me than her in that moment in time.

5. Keep the conversation going.

Experts agree that talking to your child is one of the best ways to build vocabulary and social skills, and even shape their ability to learn. It was easy to do this at home, playing a favorite game and talking or singing nonstop. But the first time Madison was able to ride in the cart in the grocery store, I found myself a little embarrassed by how many heads we turned with my steady stream of descriptions of produce and colors. Then an older woman stopped me and said, “What a beautiful little girl you have.”

I smiled, realizing that nobody but Madison thought twice about the one-sided conversation. While I know it’s a benefit to her, I’ve found it to be a tremendous benefit for me as well. Every errand speeds by more quickly when done with my little companion, and every trip to the bank or gas station becomes an adventure of “Who will we meet next?”

6. Relive it through writing.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on my journey toward being a more mindful parent came from a conversation with a stranger.

I was sitting on a bench outside, bouncing my nearly walking child on my lap, when a friendly grandmother of two came and sat next to me. As we talked about children, the woman sighed and said if she had to do it all over again, she’d follow the advice a friend had given her and write down one sentence every day, that one thing that made her laugh or made her think or even that made her angry. So many of those moments, she said, had been lost in time.

There’s something about the act of writing that helps us to relive a moment and file it more securely in our memory banks. By planning this contemplation period each evening, during the course of the day I find myself more frequently thinking, “This is a moment I want to remember forever.” Recognizing that at the time actually helps me to keep myself in the present.

So, yes. Back in the day when I was still pregnant and had a very different idea of what parenting was, I rolled my eyes at a lot of unsolicited advice (like “Sleep plenty now, since you won’t be able to later”—because I can totally store sleep like a camel stores food). But there’s one piece of advice I’ve decided to take—to be present, and to enjoy my child the best I can.

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