It was a typical Monday morning at my house. The “get-everybody-out-the- door” routine had been at full throttle.
The kids were dressed, fed, brushed, outfitted with backpacks and coats; their father had sped off to work, the school bus had come and gone. I stood at the kitchen sink, absentmindedly putting breakfast dishes away, occasionally remembering where my coffee cup was, sorting out my plans for the day. The only variation in our morning was the presence of my sister-in-law, Nina, who sat at the table sipping ginger tea and observing our activities with bemused interest.
“Wow, I can see you really have a rhythm going here,” she observed.
“A rhythm?” I asked, sliding all the juice glasses in a row and folding up the dishtowel.
“Sure,” she said, “it’s more than a routine. It’s a rhythm. You’re still in it, even after they’ve left the house. Now you’re in the cleanup rhythm.”
I stopped for a moment, and I felt the “rhythm” stop, too.
“You know, you’re right,” I said. “I do this cleaning up thing; it’s a way to unwind after the commotion, to feel I’ve got it all in order. And meanwhile, I’m sorting out in my mind what my next tasks are. But, oh, the distractions! The phone calls, the interruptions, the stupid mistakes…”
“No wonder!” Nina exclaimed. “Anyone resents things that interrupt her rhythm. It keeps you from being effective, and from enjoying what’s going on.”
I thought about this later and realized that, despite hassles and interruptions, I often find pleasure in the pace of my days at home. And don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I even enjoy keeping house—not in a June Cleaver fantasy housewife way—but at times I feel efficient and capable.
There are moments I sense the rhythm my sister-in-law observed. When that happens, even the endless nature of housekeeping (aptly described as “threading beads on a string with no knot at the end”) is not so daunting.
When I start to experience the breaks in my rhythm, I muster my resources toward getting the rhythm back; let go of the anxieties, if possible: cut myself a little slack, and do the things I know by heart and can accomplish without missing a beat.
I think what happens is what brain researchers have identified as “flow state.” Flow is a way of engaging with your own life and your surroundings, living in the moment. I compare it to the zen concept of awareness, but perhaps a clearer explanation is this one from Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: “…[I]n flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand…a state in which people are utterly absorbed in what they are doing…awareness merged with actions. Although people perform at their peak in flow, they are unconcerned with how they are doing, their responses perfectly attuned to the changing needs of their task.”
At first glance, this statement doesn’t jibe with the realities of raising two active young children. That’s why Nina’s comment about my “rhythm” surprised me. Interruption seems a common theme throughout the long process of rearing a child, maintaining a home, keeping a sense of self intact. Housework alone is a series of distractions: Picking up the Legos® under the coffee table, I notice mashed rice grains in the rug. Are those barbeque tongs in the Tinkertoy® bin? Isn’t it time to schedule another dental appointment? And when did we ever dirty so many clothes?
Small kids are demanding, period—regardless of who’s doing the housekeeping. Not only do they require much in the way of basic maintenance, but much instruction, much comfort, much attention. Furthermore, their needs change as they grow. Any parent can tell you that the needs of a newborn are vastly different from the needs of a six-year- old or an adolescent. I find it hard to imagine that I am ever performing at my peak, that my responses are ever “perfectly attuned to the changing needs” of parenting. How is it possible?
A Balancing Act
It’s no surprise that when our work makes little demand upon us, we get bored. Goleman describes how people get into flow when demands are enough to challenge us but not so great that we feel overwhelmed. In other words, it’s a balancing act.
Keeping house, however mundane it may be, basically requires only a set of easily learned skills, which we repeat over and over. How many times in your life have you washed the breakfast dishes, put leftovers away, or swept a floor? Can you accomplish these tasks even as someone is crying that she can’t find her raincoat, or asking for more juice? Chances are you can, and that most days of the week you can do them without feeling terrifically overwhelmed.
All of us manage to meet these demands, or find creative ways to refocus them. What’s more, the interruptions that everyday life brings us can be incorporated into flow without missing a beat. I can stop loading the dishwasher long enough to help my 6-year-old with a particularly stubborn sock, sign my son’s homework log, and pitch a clean towel into the bathroom before my husband gets out of the shower—and go right back to the boring and automatic dishwashing with no real “interruption” at all. The rhythm of flow enables us to do the routine and the difficult, without undue anxiety or boredom.
Let me quote Goleman again: “Watching someone in flow gives the impression that the difficult is easy: peak performance seems natural and ordinary.” To my sister-in-law, who has no boisterous kids and can keep her own schedule, my equanimity in the face of apparent chaos seemed difficult and almost miraculous. But she had analyzed what she was seeing: The rhythm—flow—is a set of skills that led to a mastery of the situation.
Thank goodness she saw us on a “good” morning! There are plenty of days that flow is missing in our house, plenty of days I feel exhausted and unappreciated by three o’clock in the afternoon. Still, I’m grateful she made me stop and notice my own strengths. Too often I feel bogged down by the weaknesses, those distracting days when nothing goes right.
Now, when I start to experience the breaks in my rhythm, I muster my resources toward getting the rhythm back. I let go of the anxieties, if possible, cut myself a little slack, and do the things I know by heart and can accomplish without missing a beat. I may not get into “flow” but I can remind myself that even housework has its moment, that stringing beads can be a relaxing task—as long as I ignore, or accept, that the other end of the string can never be knotted.