A few months ago I wrote about how my 3 year old daughter’s natural ability to be present, in pretty much every moment of her waking life, offers a crucial lesson in the power of now, both for me personally and for my relationship with my wife:
The more present we are to ourselves–our individual needs and desires–the more fulfilling our lives. The more present we are with our spouse, the more fulfilling our relationships. The challenge for parents, both individually and as a couple, often center around how little time and energy we have to do both, given the ongoing demands of life, e.g., work, kids.
Yet as neuroscience affirms, being present supports individual and relationship health and fulfillment. Being present is also key to our effectiveness as parents, which is why I want to revisit it, in light of research by two Harvard psychologists, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.
What is it about staying present—which, not coincidentally, is the holy grail for a slew of spiritual teachings—that’s so important?
According to Killingsworth and Gilbert’s study, most of us spend nearly half our waking hours thinking about stuff other than what we’re doing. Here’s the kicker:
“People were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not. This was true during all activities, including the least enjoyable.” [emphasis added]
Including the least enjoyable? Seriously? Now, that’s food for focused thought!
I wish they had segmented their sample into those with and without kids, because I’d wager many of us engaged in the day-to-day demands of parenting “mind wander” more than, say, those who are childless or empty nesters.
We also take pride in our ability to change a baby’s diaper or pack a preschooler’s lunch, while internally mapping the presentation we have to give at the office in an hour or our entire family’s schedules for the rest of the day, if not week.
Multitasking is part of every parent’s job-description.
Yet, given this research, and just plain common sense that it’s a good thing to be present to our daily lives, how can we balance the distracting demands of parenting with our desire for personal and relationship happiness?
Here’s one approach: Be more intentional about booking time—focused, present time—with (1) our children, (2) ourselves, and (3) our spouses.
I know, I know; you already do your best to stay present with your kids. Yet unless we make the effort—if only 1-minute at a time—to also quiet our wandering minds when we’re solo and when with spouses, the tug of unhappiness will get stronger.
1-minute at a time? Yes! As short as that is, 60 seconds can be a chunk of time for a busy parent and, truth be told, if the goal is to be present to what we’re experiencing in this very moment, then it’s not necessarily, or not only, how long we focus that’s important, it’s also how well and how often we do so.
On the cusp of getting married, a friend gave me 2 pieces of great advice to stay as present as possible during my wedding. Turns out, her ideas are as relevant to staying connected with spouses, children, and ourselves, as they are to our experience of special occasions.
Suggestion 1: Look around as much as possible during the ceremony and reception and imagine you’re taking snapshots of what you see. Even if it’s only for an instant, focus on what you’re looking at and capture it in your mind’s eye.
Suggestion 2: Look at and touch each other during the ceremony. Do so not only during your vows, not only when you’re encouraged to kiss each other at the end. Look at and touch each other with conscious effort to squeeze each other’s hand, grab a few poignant moments to gaze into each other’s eyes and really see each other.
Because of this friend’s advice, my wife and I both both stayed present to ourselves, and each other, for much of our wedding, and now have a reservoir of memories to draw upon from our internal cameras, in addition to our wedding album and video.
These 2 simple tools—(1) creating intermittent, yet focused, inner snapshots of what’s going on around us, and (2) consciously touching and looking attentively at our spouses (or anyone, for that matter)—take less than one minute, yet can quiet our wandering minds and reconnect us to what’s happening right now.
To ramp this up with spouses, try the following approach (which is not, by the way, as easy as it sounds, so don’t fret if this takes a little practice):
– Agree to take 1 minute to connect with each other in silence;
– Then, set an alarm for 1 minute;
– Look into each other’s eyes for those 60 seconds;
– Giggling is okay, but a wandering eye or mind aren’t, so if you/your spouse thinks about something else before the alarm sounds, admit it and start over.
– If gazing at each other doesn’t work for one or both of you, no problem. Instead, try this: Gently hold hands and focus on your clasped hands for that full minute.
Our young children are filled with wisdom, like knowing that happiness and staying present are entwined. While getting older gifts us the ability to multitask, we’d do well, now and again, to stop our internal wandering and reconnect consciously with our kids, with ourselves, and with our beloveds.
Make sense? Helloooo?!?! Oh no, have I lost you to your wandering mind? 😉