After three years of parenting, I often find myself thinking about attention. Attention is a gift, perhaps the greatest gift. The quality of your attention says so much about who you are. How do you attend to your day, your family, your friends? Do you attend to the past, the future, or the present? As a parent, this is how I pay attention:
1. I pay attention to whether or not my children are about to kill themselves. Everything–literally everything–can kill them. Doors, drawers, outlets, the paper shredder, couches, chairs, tables, walls, corners, Legos, blankets, beds, cars, seat belts, dogs, food that’s not cut small enough, food that’s cut too small, water, bathtubs, siblings, curiosity, fun, breathing, everything can kill my kids. Most of my attention is spent saving my children from certain death.
2. I pay attention to whether or not my children are about to kill me. I never know if the kid calmly playing with a puzzle or watching Sesame Street will have a manic burst of crazy, elbows and knees flailing, sharp toys at the ready, and haul off on dear old dad. Or maybe my daughter has decided to bolt out of the door and into the street. Which will kill me quicker: the car I dove in front of to save her or the heart-attack she gave me the instant she ran?
3. I pay attention to dirt. I wonder is that dirty? Why is he touching that? What did you just touch that’s now in your mouth? Did you touch the dog? Did you touch the dog’s butt? Did you just touch the dog’s butt and then pluck a fruit snack from the floor and massage it into your gums? Why is there so much dirt in the world and how do you always know exactly where to find it? During my more reflective moments, I wonder is my kid the dirty kid? What if he’s the dirty kid? Is our house the dirty one? Do we look like we’ve given up on being clean and presentable? Is everyone judging those crumbs on the table? That coffee cup that I left on the counter instead of putting in the sink? The blanket with too much dog hair caked in? Are we the dirty family?
4. I pay attention to my kids’ happiness. Are they happy right now? Is this activity making them happy? Even though they can’t possibly remember these years (right?), am I instilling in them a general feeling of contentment that they’ll recall later in life? Will they remember a happy childhood?
5. I pay attention to the balance between entertainment and learning. Yes, we’ve now just watched four episodes of Super Why after we watched three episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, but they were learning, right? They got to spell and rhyme and talk about feelings and friends–that much TV is okay, right? And we did spend some time reading books, building towers, snuggling, walking in the park, and playing “Bob the Builder” with our trucks instead of watching it. That makes up for the TV, right? Doesn’t it? Do we watch too much TV? Which leads me to…
6. …why I pay attention to my guilt as I imagine the eyes of every other parent watching me, pressuring me to be a good parent, to be a perfect parent, to be the best parent that has ever parented. This is the type of attention that looms over me all day, every day. Am I living up to the standards of the modern parent? What does that even mean? What is a modern parent? Are we supposed to be better parents than our parents? We are, aren’t we? Time and research and blogs make us the best generation of parents, right? But am I one? What kind of parent am I? I know I don’t want to be a helicopter parent or a free-range parent. I don’t want to be a Tiger Mom–or Lion Dad, I guess. I also don’t want to be sued by my kids twenty years from now because I screwed up this whole parenting thing.
7. I pay attention to my kids’ health and well-being. I wonder if they’re crying just to cry or if they might actually be sick? You cry so much for what mostly seems to be no reason at all, but will giving you Tylenol make you stop crying? Are you teething? Do you need to poop? Did you eat too much cheese and bread at dinner? Do all of your clothes actually fit? Did you wear that Mickey Mouse shirt to preschool last week? Are they going to think you only have three shirts? Did I brush your teeth today? Did I brush my teeth today? How long have your sheets been on your bed? Do you say enough words for your age? Are your sentences complex enough? Can you string cheerios on a shoelace? Can you stand on one foot for five seconds? Why is that even important?
8. I pay attention like Goldilocks. Is your food too hot? Is is too cold? Is it just right? Is your room too hot? Will you be able to fall asleep? Is your room too cold? Do you have enough blankets? Are you too hot? Do you have a fever? How high is the fever? Wait, you feel cold. Are you cold? Is he cold, hon? Oh my gosh, is our son a reptile? Is he literally cold-blooded all of a sudden? Is your bath too hot? When I dip your toes in the tub, will they melt because I tested the water with my hand and not my wrist? Wait, is your bath too cold now? Did too much time pass while you ran around the house naked, avoiding your bath? Wait, where’s your sister? She’s reading a book in her room? And she’s naked. And she didn’t poop today. Okay, there she is. And she’s pooping. She’s pooping! Mommy, your daughter is pooping on the floor!
9. I pay attention to what they’re paying attention to. What occupied their attention today? Did they use the iPad too much? Did they do all of their puzzles? Do they actually listen to every word we say? Even when they’re playing with blocks and we’re discussing those stupid people at Kroger, did they actually hear us say, “Did that jerk not see me standing there first? I waited behind everyone else to get this sliced chipotle roast chicken. They don’t have to wait I guess because they’re special. You know what’s special for me? Grocery shopping. Because it’s the only time I left the house today, thank you very much kids, loves of my life. I hate everyone.” Oh, there’s the neighbor that says four-letter words every other sentence. Do they pay attention to that? Is my kid going to say, “I want some f—ing cereal, Daddy!”
10. I pay attention to my kids because they say, “Daddy watch me!” They say that so much. I watch them. So. Much. Your sister is only one, I have to follow her on the playground. “Daddy, watch me!” I’m following your sister, and there’s my son, thirty-five feet up a playground ladder, stepping across the chasm that is the transition from ladder to platform. Why do those ladders go so high? And why are they always so far from the platform? I should have watched you because now you’re going to fall and kill yourself! Wait, now I’m back to attention type number one. Seriously, everything will kill them. I GIVE UP! There’s too much to pay attention to! When do I get to pay attention to myself? Or your mother? She’s the one I liked first, anyway! What’s that, hon? It’s only 9:30 a.m.? We still have nine more hours of this? Are you sure bath time can’t start at five instead of six? I need another coffee. Is there any whiskey left? Would the parents at the playground even notice if I had a splash of an adult beverage in my tumbler? They probably would… What’s that? There isn’t any whiskey? We haven’t had a bottle of liquor at home in three years? Why don’t we pay attention to the important things?