On a recent night, the temperature was still in the 80s when I got home with my kids. Keith, 5, and Jason, 2, were slow-motion running around our front yard, each too focused on fighting their encroaching tiredness to bicker with the other. The sun was setting, and an amber-red light bathed them as they stopped to examine an ant’s progress. “Come see,” they called, and when I did, Keith surprised me with a hug. He smelled like summer, a mix of sunscreen and sweaty hair. Remember this, I started yelling in my head, before the hug was even over. The inner voice clamored like some producer in a control room, frantically directing a live show. Remember this!
I took myself out of that amazing “now,” anticipating some future without surprise hugs and ant appreciation. I know childhood goes by in a flash, and I have such FOMO, fear of missing out, that I even feel it when there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
As we head into summer, I resolve to stay in the moment. Here’s my game plan for being a present parent:
Resolution #1: Stop listening to the “parenting sucks” crowd.
Don’t get me wrong, as moms and dads we face a conga line of indignities. We squeeze into bathroom stalls and allow our nicest clothes to become napkins. But lately we’re constantly hearing how hard this job is. And we’re told this so often that those of us who actually enjoy parenting feel a pang of guilt confiding that to anyone. Worse, we risk someone thinking we’re either lying or naïve.
It also leads to an odd form of imposter syndrome. I am constantly asking myself if I am really this happy, if I’m doing this right. Isn’t it supposed to be a grind? The consequence is that right in those perfect moments, I remove myself to examine the happiness from the outside. See, I say to myself, this is real.
So here goes: I like being Dad. There, I said it.
Resolution #2: Go on a phone diet.
God, I love my phone. It’s the perfect escape from human interaction. I can’t imagine what we did in elevators before smartphones. Watching numbers and counting floors...what were we, cavemen? Sadly, though, I catch myself doing this around my kids. I am telling them, without using words, that whatever is on my phone is more important than they are.
I need to go on a phone diet and cut out some of the junk I take in. We binge on information, but most of it is just a barrage of drivel. Is it worth it for me to read nine comments on an acquaintance’s Instagram, especially when most of them are emojis?
I've started watching other parents with their phones, staring at screens even as they push kids on swings and reluctantly looking up the second time their kid yells, “Mommy!” It’s helped me see what I have been missing doing the same, which, unfortunately, leads to my next resolution ...
Resolution #3: Stop judging other parents.
Shoot. I was just doing that; wasn’t I? This is one of the hardest habits for me to break. How am I supposed to know I’m a good parent if I’m not better than someone else? I’m joking, but, uh, well, I’m not really joking. I should be gauging my performance as a dad by looking at how my kids are doing, not how others are parenting.
Resolution #4: Turn off the TV.
This one has actually been forced upon me. My cable box died a week ago, and my husband and I are too lazy to call the company. We are locked in a battle of wills, each waiting for the other to take charge of the problem. But that’s actually good, because when it was cold this winter, I let my kids watch a show in the morning. And then maybe they could watch another. Then they’d be so stir-crazy they were bouncing off the walls.
Forget the arguments about minimizing screen time, and put the focus on maximizing nature time. Kids need to be outside, enjoying their own “nows.” My Midwest-born husband says our boys are like horses: “You gotta run them, you gotta feed them, and you gotta rest them.”
Resolution #5: Get out from behind the camera.
I am constantly taking photos because, just like your kids, my kids are constantly being awesome. So I take 27 photos of them petting a goat at the zoo instead of just being present while they pet the darn goat. I can also kill the spontaneity of the moment with my obsession with recording it. This weekend, Jason stood at the top of a slide, beating his chest like a gorilla. Instead of admiring the spectacular humor of that moment, I was looking down to dig in my pocket for my phone.
I need to do a better job of living memories as they’re being made, not saving them for posterity. The reflex to grab my phone is turning me into a photo hoarder.
Resolution #6: Breathe, dammit.
I recently worked on a project involving Transcendental Meditation. And, man, were those meditators mellow. I'm going to start practicing, but I also think any mom or dad can benefit just by taking a couple of deep breaths when parenting becomes difficult, like, say, when your 5-year-old announces midway to school that he can’t take another step until you magically produce the train he left on his play table.
I have found that deep breathing provides a defense against the slings and arrows of outrageous behavior. The more trying my kids get, the more I exaggerate my breathing, like I’m giving birth. If I don’t give in to the bad moments, I can be more present for the good.
Resolution #7: Stop worrying (well, worry a little less).
My kids are healthy now, and I'm grateful. Keith was born two months premature, and he has had his share of hospital stays and surgeries. When I watch him dance or see him run a whole block ahead of me, I feel a mix of gratitude and fear. I get scared that if I don’t cherish that moment enough, it will be taken from me.
We all worry about our kids. When they’re babies, we casually check to see if they’re still breathing; when they’re teens we casually check their breath for alcohol. Of course, part of being a parent is anticipating problems. But my goal is to let go of some of the worry that something bad will happen and start to appreciate when something good is happening.
I don’t know if I can keep these resolutions, but I will try. My Buddhism professor in college told a story of practicing with a famous Tibetan lama. She was struggling with clearing her mind during meditation and, finally, confessed to him in a sputter of emotion, “I keep getting distracted; what should I do to be present?”
He looked at her like she was a little crazy and broke into a big smile. “Child,” he said, “just do the best you can.”