Do One Thing at Once

by Trisha Thompson

Do One Thing at Once

Don’t expect to be at one with your universe after you’ve read this article. No matter what you do, you’ll never find serenity on the scale of a Dalai Lama (remember, he doesn’t have kids) or even a Florence Henderson (she had help).

No, the objectives here are modest: To slow down — not every day, not all the time, but some of the time. I, for one, am tired of rushing myself and my children through the days and nights of our only lifetime together: “Hurry up and get ready for bed, so we can hurry up and read together, so we can hurry up and get some sleep, so we can hurry up and wake up and start all over again ¿” Should life be such a rat race when you’re 3 — or 30?

By the end of this article, you may have no deeper knowledge of nirvana than the band, but you will have some concrete suggestions to temper the frenetic pace of life. You’ll feel more relaxed, and gradually, you’ll notice deeper benefits, too. Slowing down, it turns out, allows us to live more in the moment. It’s true that when you stop rushing around, you get less done. But you also get more moments, and yes, these are the moments of your life.

Do less
Creative movement on Mondays, pre-K soccer on Tuesdays, playdates on Wednesdays, Mommy and Me on Thursdays — have you been there, done that, and that, and that? We all want to enrich our children’s lives. My eldest’s first “class” was Infant Massage. Although Madeline was just 3 months old, I was sure she needed those baby tensions rubbed away.

But when the schedule gets so crowded that it causes more pain than pleasure for parents and kids, something’s got to give. “Our lists are too packed, and so we’ve got to unpack the lists,” says Kirk Byron Jones, Ph.D., author of Addicted to Hurry: Spiritual Strategies for Slowing Down.

Ali de Groot of Amherst, Massachusetts, says it took her years to figure out that it was best to alternate days with scheduled activities and days without for her three girls, Lila, 12, Violet, 11, and Angela, 8. “When the kids were really young, I also didn’t schedule many playdates. It was too much to have so many little kids in my house, or to pick one up and find her screaming, ‘I don’t wanna go!'”

“For the sanity of the family, one or two activities per child is enough,” says Angela Wiley, Ph.D., assistant professor of family studies at the University of Illinois. “Children really benefit from downtime.”

Parents benefit, too. Wiley recalls one late afternoon when she was rushing from a faculty meeting to pick up her 5-year-old at the sitter’s to get her ready for her dance-recital dress rehearsal. “I was trying to get her tutu on and do her hair and put on her eye shadow, and she said, ‘Mommy, you’re going too fast!’ And I was — when we’re rushing, our kids are rushing, too, and the stress is contagious,” says Wiley, who has decided to keep ballet next year but forgo gymnastics.

Trisha Thompson is the former editor of Babytalk magazine.

Take your time and multitask

Take your time
We rush because we have too much to do. But we also rush out of habit. After all, none of us is constantly on deadline. For me, one little mantra has started to make a difference: “Take your time.” I say it when I’m feeling rushed and, in turn, rushing my girls. It almost always calms me down, and when I say it to them they look as if they’ve been given a gift. And they have — the gift of time without pressure.
In 21-month-old Adia McClure’s room in Otterbein, Indiana, there’s a framed piece of wisdom that her mother, Jodi, relies on each day. It’s a needlepoint made by Adia’s great-grandmother, and it reads: “Cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow, for babies grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow. So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep. I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep.”
“It always puts things in perspective,” says McClure. “Whenever I feel overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done ‘right now,’ I pick up Adia and walk into her room and read that sign.”

Curb multitasking
Now, I’m not suggesting that we quit juggling entirely. As moms, we have too much to do and too little time in which to do it, so it’s natural that we try to do several things at once. Used judiciously (say, folding laundry or dusting windowsills while chatting on the phone), multitasking is harmless and even productive.
But left to run amok, it’s an insidious habit. It can be physically dangerous, such as when I sliced two fingers chopping onions while trying to watch my little one do the Macarena. But the more pressing danger of habitual multitasking lies in the way it seems to chip away at your spirit, leaving you feeling drained, dissatisfied, and that you’re not doing anything particularly well.
“We’ve been trained to think multitasking is the answer,” says Wiley. “But it can be exhausting. If you focus on just one thing, like calming down your crying child or talking to your husband, it takes less out of you, and you’ll be able to give more and move on to the next task with more energy and enthusiasm.”

Plan (way) ahead
Of course, even after you pare down and slow down, there will still be places that must be gotten to on time. To avoid rushing, you need a plan. Even with three kids, de Groot somehow seems never to be in a hurry. Her secret: She starts getting everyone ready 15 minutes ahead of time per person. This means that readying may begin an hour or more before the family of five needs to be in the car, “but that’s the only way I know to avoid meltdowns,” she says.
“I don’t tell them, ‘We have to leave in forty-five minutes because they don’t really know what that means, and it makes me more tense to do the countdown,” says de Groot. I just say, ‘You have to get ready now,’ and then I leave plenty of time.” I’ve borrowed her method, and I must admit that while we’re still sometimes late, the less I behave like a drill sergeant, the less frantic all of us feel.

Play games
My sister-in-law, Adrienne Levine, will drop pretty much everything to sit down and play Scrabble with her two kids. This is, in part, because she likes to play games. But it’s also because she knows that playing with her children seems to slow down time. “It takes us out of the fast pace and forces us to sit and do nothing else.”
Tara Foster of Rolling Prairie, Indiana, has an evening ritual in which she takes her 2-year-old and a few toys into a corner of the living room and pretends that she’s a toddler, too. I’m going to try this the next time my 9-year-old begs me to play Fashion Polly dolls with her. My adult impatience and the tyranny of my mental checklist usually ruin the game for both of us.

Lower yourself to their level

Make eye contact
Recently, I’ve tried to make it a habit. No matter what I’m in the middle of doing, I stop and look at my girls whenever they speak to me. It forces me to focus on what they’re saying, and because I’m now more engaged in the moment, I’m less annoyed about being interrupted. It also seems to make them less demanding. Like the squeaky wheel, once they’ve gotten what they need (namely, my undivided attention) then they’re free to go off to the next thing.

Lower your standards
Did you think you could keep your house spotless and make gourmet meals while you also take your time, curb multitasking, and start playing games with your kids? Well, you can’t, and the sooner we all accept that, the better.
“I’ve learned to redefine what ‘productive’ means to me,” says de Groot. “I don’t start a cleaning project I know I can’t get done by the time one of my kids will need me. Consequently, I don’t get mad or frustrated that I couldn’t get the task done. When my children were little, I forced myself to nap when they did. For a long time I felt less ‘productive,’ but I was more content.”
A couple of years ago, I saw a television interview with J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. She said that she didn’t whip up a phenomenal series of best-sellers while also carrying out her duties as a mother perfectly. She didn’t do housework for four years, and basically she just wrote. The moral: No one can do everything well all of the time. So take another look at your priorities and don’t beat yourself up over dust bunnies and take-out pizza.

Create some quiet
We live in a noisy world, and most of us live in noisy households as well — TV blaring, baby screeching, toddler interrogating, preschooler singing, phone ringing, dog barking, and parents trying to be heard above the din. This is why, since my girls could speak, we’ve observed moments of silence. I hold them close to me, and we agree not to speak  — to just breathe. Sometimes the quiet lasts a minute, sometimes five, but it’s always a welcome relief from sound.
“We’re raising a generation of children who haven’t had the luxury of experiencing quiet,” says Wiley. “That’s partly because we equate talking with good parenting. But I’ve had my five-year-old tell me, ‘Mommy, you talk too much.'” One tactic she uses to quiet herself and her family each evening is to light a candle. “The supper candle is the signal for us to take a minute to contemplate our day silently. Then we talk and eat, and at the end of the meal, my daughter gets to blow the candle out.”

Sit down
One evening, when my youngest was 6, she walked into the family room, saw me sitting on the couch doing nothing at all, and burst into tears. She ran to get her father. “Something’s wrong because Mommy’s just sitting,” Ellie said. It was a slap upside my head. Now I try to let my children see me just sitting each day. I figure it’s good for me, and good role modeling for them as future mothers.As one more means of slowing down, I also now sit while toothbrushing. Sitting on the side of the tub, I relax, brush longer, and maybe read a bit (good multitasking). Foster hides out in her bathroom just to be alone. “When I close the bathroom door, no one is allowed to knock or yell ‘Mom!’ I primp or just stare at the wall. When I come out, my hair is brushed and I smell decent. And everyone knows that is the best time to talk to Mom.”