May 4, 2017

No To-Do List is Complete without This.

A few days ago, I was playing with my two-year-old daughter.

I’m the first one to admit that playing with little ones can be boring at times, but I’d actually found a nice groove that day. We were chasing each other, pushing a toy train, laughing, and having fun. It was so exhilarating—I felt like a good mom! I was so pleased with the experience that I stopped.

I stopped playing with my daughter in order to grab a notebook and write down on a to-do list, “Schedule active playtime daily.” And, naturally, once I was faced with a to-do list and armed with a pen, other tasks began flooding me.

“I need to do yoga and prep lunches,” my mind raced. “I need to read that feminist mothering book and finish the article I started writing. I need to ‘Marie Kondo‘ the bathroom cabinet. I need to…”

The next thing I knew, I was pushing away a whining toddler, saying, “Hang on, Mommy just needs to finish this.”

As my daughter—confused by the sudden cessation of our fun—started to form tears in the corners of her eyes, I stopped writing. I saw the scene that was unfolding. I thought, “What is wrong with me?”

The lines on my to-do list map the architecture of my life. I am a stay-at-home mom and writer. Without a self-made schedule, each day would be formless. Patterns keep me productive. Systems help me get things done.

But when did making the plan become more important than executing the deed? When did I start letting my nice, neat formula for the future supersede the messy joy of today?

When I was growing up, it felt like my mother never had a plan. She never seemed to think beyond that hour, that day, that week. I was often the kid who forgot the permission slip, or didn’t have shoes for gym, or didn’t show up at the right place or time. To this day, I remain aware of my mother’s lack of plans.

All through my childhood—on the opposite hand—my mother was excellent at playing. We sang songs and played games. We made crafts and had parties. She was entirely unconcerned with organizing the bathroom cabinets or prepping lunches for the week. Her focus was on her thriving, growing daughter. She was living with both feet in the present.

These days, “mindfulness” has become a buzzword. “Being present” is yet another thing we can strive to do. But there are good reasons for this! Capitalism has us constantly chasing a carrot we’ll never grasp while the flowers around us bloom and die. Our children grow up, up, and away; a lifetime of suns rise and set without notice.

Learning to “be here now” is so important, so fundamental, so deeply needed these days. And yet, it is important to likewise notice that our society doesn’t generally bestow blessings upon those without a plan. We clap our hands for long-term, deliberately earned achievements and punish those who fail to map out a strategy for their goals.

I’m a modern woman, so naturally I want it both ways. I want to find intentional, uninterrupted joy in my mother-daughter playtime (and whatever else I do) and still allow a timetable of tasks to be my guide. But maybe these things aren’t so incompatible after all.

It is possible that a schedule is not the enemy of the present. Maybe an agenda bolsters an ability to focus. Perhaps making a solid plan allows me to do this now and other things later. But we have to cultivate the discipline to stick to it (and we have to schedule time for creating the schedule).

In the end, I have, in fact, scheduled “active playtime” into each day. I set a reminder on my phone for when it starts and ends. During this hour of toddler play, I try very hard not to let anything pull my focus. I actively overlook the laundry to be folded, and tuck the essay idea behind my ear for later. If I really, really need to, I jot something down as fast as I can. And if I lose my focus, I stop and try to notice five specific things.

Today it was: the speckles of brown in my daughter’s green eyes, the sideways puffs of sleety snow coming down outside my window, the half-eaten almond butter and jelly sandwich on the edge of the coffee table, the subtle scent of our wood stove, and the soft braid in my little girl’s hair.

I noticed these things and I felt nourished, sustained. The alarm buzzed and I moved on—one item crossed off for today.


Author: Nico Wood Kos, Ph.D.
Image: London Scout/Unsplash
Editor: Leah Sugerman

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Nico Wood Kos, Ph.D.