Uni-tasking With Children: The Impossible Dream?

I’ve been making a point of Doing One Thing these past several days. It’s been nice when I can manage it. I’m feeling more calm and dishes washed by hand shine a lot better than they do when they come out of the dishwasher.

Buoyed by this relative success, I’ve begun to try to extend my Doing One Thing to eating. Trouble is, it’s difficult to Do One Thing when I’ve got kids asking me for a glass of milk or to re-wrap their burrito, or making bird noises and quizzing me about which bird they’re mimicking, or spilling their milk all over the seat and the floor and the heat register, or asking me to wrap their burrito again.

I remind myself that Doing One Thing isn’t about ignoring all other thoughts and stimuli. It’s not about being an empty vessel; it’s about bringing awareness to the present moment. It’s totally okay to go from one task to the next and then back to the first, as long as I’m aware in each one. I can be aware of the patterns that the oil floating on top of my chicken soup makes and then I can be aware of the spill pattern of the milk I’m wiping up and then I can look my daughter in the eye while she’s trying to mimic a Stellar’s jay mimicking a red-tailed hawk.

But what about those times when I don’t want to be aware? When my daughter is yelling at my son in the backseat to “Be quiet! I don’t want to hear you talking!” I want to turn up the radio and sing along to Beck (“Baby, I’m a lost cause,” seems particularly appropriate in those moments). When my son has decided to tell me he has to go poo after he’s already gone in his pants, I want to distract myself with thoughts of how I’ll blog about it later rather than being aware of the poo-cleaning process.

Or when my son wants me to do his dinosaur puzzle with him for the 57 billionth time, or my daughter wants us to be dogs for the day. I’m embarrassed at the intensity of my boredom, and I want to call someone and chat on the phone or get my laptop and check my e-mail while helping my son find the T-rex’s foot.

I’m reminding myself that, small as it sounds, Doing One Thing is actually a big challenge, especially for someone who lives in her mind as much as I do.

“What’s your grand plan?” my husband asked about my Voluntary Simplicity Project the other night. “You’re doing the dishes mindfully. What else is on the list?”

“Nothing,” I said, somewhat embarrassed to say it. “I’m just Doing One Thing for a while. That feels like enough for now. I’ll add something else later, but I don’t want to get caught up in my usual flurry of planning or get consumed by the external appearance of simplicity and miss the point of the project.”

“What’s the point of the project, then?” he asked.

“To live more consciously. I figure simplicity will naturally follow if I can live more consciously.”

This project is a process, not an endpoint. I’m not going to get to a point where I am living every moment in conscious awareness and can just check that off my to-do list and move on to something else. If I can be aware just once a day of a moment in which I’m trying to escape the intensity of interacting with my children, if I can stop myself, look my child in the eye, and just be there for her completely one time during the day, that’s a start. And that’s actually pretty huge.

I suppose the appropriate thing to do with those feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt and worries that I’m just not accomplishing enough stuff fast enough is to be aware of them and let them go. That’s pretty huge, too.

Last night, out of the blue, my husband told me he likes my new project.

“But is it okay if I still use the dishwasher?”

“Sure, you can use the dishwasher,” I said. “Just use it mindfully.”

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