Monday, September 7, 2015

The Intricate Dance of Parental Multitasking

A Contraposing Paradox

The ability to multitask seems to have become a minimum requirement to be qualified for any job these days, akin to being able to read and write.  With the advances in technology, it seems we are now more capable than ever of completely maximizing our time efficiency, and if you're not doing more than at least two things at once, you're probably sleeping.  Parenting is no exception, and being a stay at home parent to three kids under the age of 5, my life has become one permanent multitask.  Even the Pope recently marveled at what he sees as parent's ability to pack 48 hours or activity into a 24 hour day.  

When I decided to stay at home, one of the draws was being able to tackle some of the other time consuming facets of life that often got overlooked while both my wife and I were working - keeping the house semi-clean, running errands during normal business hours, cooking meals, doing laundry, etc.  I have had more time to lend to these glamorous tasks, and will occasionally make time (see 2/26 post).  But it can still be a challenge to balance everything that is going on, and the "To Do" list seems pretty never ending.  It doesn't tend to help that the minute you complete on item on your list, say vacuuming, the kids have a way of adding three more: clean up broken glass on bathroom floor from glass container dropped by 4 y/o, wash floor outside of the bathroom where 2 y/o peed because she couldn't get to the toilet in time due to broken glass, do laundry because 2 y/o was wearing the only dress she will ever consider wearing - you know, the one that twirls really high.

So you have to perfect the art of parental multitasking, and there are definitely some modern devices that can help you.  To calm a fussy baby and get a variety of other things done at the same time, a baby bjorn is a great tool.  A few things I have done while "baby wearing" include: various household cleaning, meal prep (recommend limited oven/stove use), meal consumption, grocery shopping, playing with older children (pushing in swing, pitching for batting practice, etc.), helping older children use the bathroom, using the bathroom myself (by all means, judge away), and low intensity strength training (more to come on that one, and feel free to keep judging).  I've been able to rationalize the, likely excessive, use of the baby bjorn by considering the parental bond that you create with your baby by having them so close to your body.  Plus they are so young that they won't remember it anyway.

I also tend to gravitate toward various tasks that can somewhat easily be left alone for a sizable chunk of time, like laundry.  I do a lot of this "household chore" because I can put a load in the wash and it buys me 45 minutes.  Then I move it over to the dryer and buy myself another 45 minutes.  The trouble can come though after those 90 minutes are up, and the finished product actually needs to be addressed.  I like to say that our laundry spends a lot of time "in transition" at our house - it's been washed but hasn't had a chance to move to the dryer yet; it's dry but hasn't been folded yet; it's folded, or partially folded, but yet to be put away and currently occupies the entirety of our dining room table.  Transitional time of our laundry typically ranges between 1 hour and 1 week.

When you always have to be doing something to make it seem like there is a chance you could possibly be on top of things, you really have to seize every moment.  I've been known to load/empty the dishwasher while eating - I'm a slow eater and figure I could do something else in between bites while I chew excessively.  If I need to keep Gus entertained while I'm doing anything in the kitchen, he often gets put in his high chair with some food in front of him - poor kid eats out of boredom before he can even say the word.  For Isla & Havi, bath-time typically gives me free range of doing anything as long as I am within earshot of the bathroom.  Most of my checking in on the outside world through email, the daily news or social media feed occurs either when I've found a particularly good hiding spot for hide-and-seek or I'm taking care of some personal business - a questionably unhealthy routine I've tried to kick, but old habits die hard.

Figuring out all of the these ways to multitask and efficiently use your time can certainly give you a small sense of accomplishment.  At least temporarily until that sense of accomplishment is replaced by a sizable sense of guilt.  Sure one of the reasons I wanted to be a stay-at-home parent was to try and get more things done around the house, and I'm fortunate that our kids do play pretty well together and pretty well on their own, without always needing my companionship or assistance.  But when that happens, too easily I can find myself getting caught up with the other things that I think need to be addressed.  And after an hour or two go by, I wonder what I've really accomplished, besides folding half of the mountain of laundry that has been sitting in transition for three days.  Even though the kids can't tell time yet, I start to feel like a pretty horseshit parent when I realize I've been repeating, "I'll be there in just a minute" for the last 10-15 minutes.

Of course I've commented on how I feel it is important to allow my kids that independent play, and how I also feel it is important for them to see me doing chores around the house and understand that those things do need to be done.  But the primary reason I wanted to be a stay-at-home parent was to spend more time with my kids, not to try and keep our floors cleaner.  As always, it's finding a balance, and like most things you'll never feel like you are getting that balance quite right.  You'll never feel like you can keep the house as clean as it should be, or the meals as healthy and balanced as you want.  And you'll also feel like your squandering your time with your kids, and wonder why your preschooler isn't doing math at a 5th grade level or your nine-month old isn't "baby-signing" full sentences yet.  After our first was born, I would have one-sided conversations with her on our way to and from daycare while listening to the news on the radio, since I had read about the importance of talking to your child at a young age.  It felt absurd, but I thought I was wasting precious time where I should be fostering her intellectual development.      

Equally absurd has been realizing the bizarre contrast between the things I don't feel I have time to do as a stay-at-home parent and the odd things I do seem to have time to do.  Naturally, I never feel like I can stay on top of keeping the house in order as much as I should.  And because of the futile attempts to keep the house in order, I never feel as though I have enough time to prepare intellectually stimulating activities for the kids - Pinterest worthy craft projects, piano lessons, practice SAT exams, etc.  Essentially gone are the happy hours and adult extracurricular activities.  Finding 45 minutes to mow the lawn even tends to be a stretch.  And given that my last post was a month ago, one of the last things I seem to find time for is writing.  Does anyone know if they've developed thought-to-text software?

While I might not have time for those things, we do seem to have time to make the 2 mile round-trip walk to the grocery store for a small number of non-perishable items (usually takes us at least 2 hours).  If it's a nice day, we can go to the beach/pool/splash pad on a moments notice (or within the hour).  My tan this summer is unreal.  I have time to read and re-read as many children's books as I please, and could spend an entire day watching cartoons if I really wanted to (feel like a horrible parent that is).  Just the other day I marveled at how I spent the better part of the afternoon with Isla playing Legos, one of my favorite activities during my adolescence.  Yeah, it can be a pretty rough gig at times, but you just have to suck it up for the kids.

Similar to deciding if your going to stay home with your kids or not, deciding how you're going to manage/balance your time if you stay home with your kids tends to be one big crapshoot in my opinion, especially if you have multiple.  You'll feel various levels of guilt either way.  It's something I struggle with on almost a daily basis, but I think I'm getting better at understanding that I don't have to be doing 8 things at once to try and feel a sense of accomplishment.  One of my favorite authors wrote about the notion of "Unitasking" - focusing strictly on one thing at a time as a way to be more actively engaged in that particular thing.  It's definitely not easy to do, especially in our fast paced, technology-filled society.  I think it's worth considering though, especially when we are spending time with others, and most especially those we love (presumably are children).  To quote a late 1980s philosopher, "Life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it."       

Titles courtesy of Dr. John Hasselberg, one of the best college professors for buzzword Bingo

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