“Mommy, did you see that? Now look at this!”
“Mmmhmm. I’ll be right with you, sweetie. Mommy just needs two minutes to send a quick email.”
My 5-year-old had mastered a new superhero trick that he’d been working on, and what super important thing was I doing? Who knows, but it certainly wasn’t paying attention to him in the way that I should have been.
I feel like the worst mother in the world as I recount that little scene, even though I know it’s not uncommon. Our lives are so busy, and there’s always something tugging at our attention and distracting us from the things that are right in front of us — in this case, the most important thing.
I was not this way when my son was born. But five years and another child later, I’m beyond scattered. There’s only one of me, two of them, and somehow 10,000 more things to do. Plus, my cell phone is beckoning 9,000 times a day with Facebook notifications, texts, emails, and breaking news alerts.
It’s overwhelming and exhausting, and I always feel like I’m behind on something. It also feels like an impossible cycle to break. But it’s not, and it just might be the most important thing I ever do.
Because I don’t want to miss out on essential bonding with my preschooler. I don’t want to miss my toddler’s new discovery because I’m overdosing on political memes. I don’t want to teach my kids that it’s OK not to experience life to its fullest or to make them think that I don’t love them more than anything in this world. I don’t want to wake up one day and wonder where all the time has gone because my babies are suddenly grown up and I’ve somehow missed it.
If you’re nodding your head in agreement, let’s make sure that we aren’t those moms. Here are 11 ways to be a less distracted parent and be more present with your kids.
1. Put your cell phone under lock and key — literally, if you have to
I won’t lie: This is going to hurt. That’s because we’ll literally be going through withdrawal. Every time we get a text or a Facebook notification, our brain gets a hit of dopamine. That sets off a vicious cycle in which we get a high of sorts, then go back for more (and more and more) to achieve that same feeling. I hate to break it to you, my friend, but we are addicted.
2. Set some hard and fast cellphone rules
I’m not saying that you should go completely cold turkey, nor should you. But instead of checking your phone incessantly, try looking at it for five minutes at the top of the hour to make sure nothing important needs your attention. Anyone and anything can wait for an hour, right? (Right.) You can increase your cellphone-free intervals from there and eventually rewire your brain so it becomes your new normal.
3. Be fanatical about to-do lists
I recommend making two lists: The first should be a realistic list of things that need to get done today. The second should highlight long-term goals. When everything is organized like this, you can see what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, and thoughts of what you’re potentially forgetting aren’t worrying and distracting you.
4. Use an old-fashioned notebook or Post-it note to jot down work ideas and random notes
By going old school, you won’t be tempted to pick up your phone and go down the rabbit hole of also quickly checking your e-mail, returning a text, checking Twitter, and so on. Plus, your children will see you writing more regularly, which might be motivating for them to pick up a pen and paper as well.
5. Be mindful
Mindfulness is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days, but what does it mean, exactly? It means being present and actually experiencing whatever you’re doing. The parenting translation: Don’t go on autopilot when doing everyday activities with your kids. Give them your whole focus, and even the most mundane tasks can provide new ways of connecting with your children. Another bonus: Kids will complete tasks with less of an argument, and your frustration level will decrease.
6. Maintain perspective with world events
The news has been pretty distressing lately, and everything feels like a crisis that will somehow detrimentally affect your family. But unless you are literally the person making the decisions, it is not an immediate crisis for you. Really. So, take a breath, vow to catch up on the day’s news later, and turn your attention toward your children. Your immediate interactions with them will have the biggest impact on them — right now and in the future.
7. Be productive and proactive
That’s not to say that you should let politics eat away at your soul. Whatever your political affiliation, make your voice heard, with or without your kids. If it’s the former, you can plan and execute a politically oriented activity together, like making a protest sign or writing postcards to your state representatives. If you’d rather not involve them, do this after their bedtime. In either case, being productive and proactive about what you believe in sets a good example for them. It also lets them know they can be involved at an early age.
8. Have ‘work time’ with your kids
This is a sneaky way to insert a little screen time into your day without taking time away from your children. Set up coloring, crafts, or writing projects for your kids, and tend to your own business while they work away. It will take a little while to get into a rhythm — and for younger ones not to bang on your computer — but once you do, it will be worth it. In addition to allowing you to get some stuff done, it can also facilitate independence and a good work ethic in your children.
9. If you have more than one child, give each of them solo attention
At various points in your kids’ lives, one will generally require much more attention than the other. It’s just the way life goes, but kids don’t get that. By carving out Mommy (and Daddy) time with each child every single day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes, you will all feel more connected, settled, and calm. And more importantly, your “neglected” child won’t feel so neglected.
10. Give yourself a break
Remember that you are a human being, that parenting is not easy, and that there are only 24 hours in the day. Sometimes, life happens, and work or family problems will distract you much more than you’d like. But don’t beat yourself up and let the misstep distract you further. Instead, be like Elsa, and let it go. Then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again tomorrow.
11. Take care of yourself
Address your own needs and you’ll be able to better focus on your family without feeling the constant tug of needing or wanting to do something else. And stop feeling guilty about taking time for yourself! Letting our children see us as people — real people, not paradigms of motherhood — is essential for their own well-being and their ideas about women. Do something little for yourself, and you’ll truly be doing something enormous for them.
All in all, it’s important to remember that your kids only get one childhood. And you’ll only experience them once as your little ones. It’s normal to be distracted once in a while, but it’s likely you’ll miss out on many special moments if it becomes a habit. Every parent struggles with maintaining balance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find the happy medium for you and your kids. What helpful tips work for you when you’re trying to avoid distracted parenting?
Dawn Yanek lives in New York City with her husband and their two very sweet, slightly crazy kids. Before becoming a mom, she was a magazine editor who regularly appeared on TV to discuss celebrity news, fashion, relationships, and pop culture. These days, she writes about the very real, relatable, and practical sides of parenting at momsanity.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.