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finding focus, for parents

1: finding focus, for parents

“The field of consciousness is tiny. It accepts only
one problem at a time.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Parents might have the most difficult challenges when it comes to finding focus. Whether you’re working all day and coming home to your kids, or you stay home taking care of all the household needs and very demanding children, there’s almost never a quiet moment, almost never a time when you can relax, find focus, attain inner peace.

I’m a father of six children, so I know. Kids tend to turn up the volume on life, increase the chaos of this already chaotic world by an order of several magnitudes. And while I’ve found that it gets easier as kids get older, it never gets easy — they still need you to drive them around a million places, to help them with a million problems, to meet their basic needs and more.

That’s OK — chaos and work are some of the joys of being a parent. But what if we want to find focus and still be awesome parents? There’s the challenge, and I’d like to offer a short guide to doing just that.

The Challenges

The biggest challenge is that parents wear many hats: we have jobs, have a household to run with its unending tasks, have personal things to do (workout, read, hobbies, etc.), possibly have civic commitments (volunteer, serve on a board, work with the PTA, etc.), and yes, we have children to raise.

How do we balance these commitments? How do we find focus in one, when we are constantly being pulled at from the others? In my life, for example, I try to focus on work but have children in my home/office who want my attention. When I spend time with them, there’s the temptation to check email or Twitter. When I want to spend time alone, the siren’s call of work and the neverending call of my children make focusing on my solo activity a challenge.

Technology presents yet another challenge. Parents these days are connected more than ever. Not only are we online more than ever before, we now have devices that keep us connected wherever we go: iPhones and Androids and Blackberries and iPads and laptops and iPod touches. While our teenager is texting us, we’re getting work emails, along with requests from our civic commitments, and a notification of a blog post about our favorite hobby.

Children make a parent’s attempt to find focus a bigger challenge than usual. People without children aren’t likely to understand this, so we’re not given breaks by our bosses or colleagues — saying that you had to take your kid to the dentist, or that your baby kept you up all night crying, isn’t likely to get you off the hook. After all, we signed up to be parents, didn’t we?

Still, it’s uniquely difficult: there isn’t a minute, it seems, when our kids don’t need something, or have a problem, or want attention, or have an appointment or practice they need to be taken to. And if there are moments when they’re not requiring our attention, often we’re thinking about things we need to be doing with them, for them. We’re thinking about what we should be doing but aren’t: reading to them more, taking them to parks to play, teaching them to build or garden or write, working on craft projects, taking them to museums, handing down the key lessons in life.

It ain’t easy. But you knew that.

One Approach

With so many hats, an effective way to find focus is to segregate your roles. Block them off into separate chunks of your day or week. And then focus on each individually, whenever possible.

So set aside certain times of your day for different roles, and block out distractions from the other roles.

An example:

  • Early mornings: wake early, before the kids are up, and spend time with yourself. Go for a run, meditate, do yoga, read a novel. Or use this time for creating: draw, design, write, etc.
  • Mid mornings: When the kids are up, help them get ready for school, get yourself ready for work, get lunches packed, etc. This is your time as a parent, and don’t do anything work-related. Talk with your kids if you find a moment.
  • Later mornings: Set aside for work. If you work from home, don’t do any household duties.
  • Afternoon: Do the household duties. Or more work.
  • Late afternoon: Spend time with kids. Block out work.
  • Early evening: Some personal time. Let the kids do their homework, and you focus on yourself.
  • Late evening: Read to your child, spend a little quiet time with her, put her to bed.

Obviously this is just an example, and won’t work for everyone. You’ll need to find the schedule that works for you. Perhaps you work best in the evenings, or you can’t do any work until your spouse gets home to take care of the kids, or you need to spend time with the kids all morning. There’s no One Size Fits All when it comes to parenting, but to the extent that you can block off your day, it helps.

You’ll also need to be flexible. It can be a problem when someone is so fixed on a daily routine that disruptions to the routine — a last minute meeting, a call from your kids’ school that your daughter is sick — will cause anxiety. As parents, of course, we learn to adapt, to deal with interruptions and changes. We need to calmly accept changes to our schedule, but as we switch to a new role (parenting, work, personal, civic, etc.), we need to learn to do only that role, again to the extent possible.

Very Young Children

I should note that it’s harder for parents of babies and toddlers. The younger the child, in general, the more demanding on your attention the child can be. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, but in my experience (I have six kids), it gets easier to focus on other things as the child gets older.

So how do you segregate roles and find focus when your child is young and always demands your attention? It’s not easy, I’ll say that. The best solution involves both parents pitching in, and giving the other a break once or twice a day. So instead of both parents taking care of the child, they take turns, and one gets some quiet time for a walk, reading, work, creating, hobbies, exercise. Then they switch.

Of course, there are also naptimes. If your baby is so young that you’re not getting very much sleep, you’ll probably want to rest when your baby rests. But otherwise, take advantage of naptimes and get some “you” stuff done. Take advantage of the quiet times, too, in the early morning before your child is awake, and at night when the child has gone to sleep.

Another solution is to get help: a professional babysitter, daycare for half a day, one of your parents who might be retired, a neice or nephew who is trustworthy and has a couple hours after school. While some of these solutions will cost some money, it might be worth the expense. You might also find another parent who needs help, and swap babysitting.

On Technology

Parents who are used to being connected in some ways might be better off by learning to embrace disconnection.

Imagine you’re taking a walk in the park with your child … it’s a lovely day, and it’s the perfect quiet moment between you and your young one. Then your phone beeps, and you know you have a new email. Well, you’ve been waiting for something from the boss or client, so you have the urge to check. It’s just going to take a few seconds — no problem right?

Well, it’s a problem. This small distraction takes you from the moment with your child, and back to the world of work. It ruins it, even if only slightly. It also teaches your child that this email is more important than she is — you can’t make the effort to be totally present with your child, because of important work emails. That’s not the best message to send.

I don’t mean to be preachy — I’m guilty of these distractions from time to time too. But it’s something we should become aware of and if possible, take measures against. Turn off the phone, shut off notifications, and be present.

When you’re at home, you can be on the computer all the time, while your child is calling for attention. Turn the computer off for stretches of time, and give your undivided attention to your child. When it’s time to work, or create, find a way to do so without the interruptions of children, and focus. But the rest of the time, shut off the computer.


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