Nearly six years ago, there was a boy and a rock that said, “You did it.” He was my then-two-year-old. We moved to Sweden early August 2013 with him and his baby brother, and it was a flurry of delightful, stressful activity. Driving on unfamiliar streets on the right side of the road, navigating new supermarkets, getting used to life with two children and the demands of a baby, the list of things I felt I could not do was unending. But there was this one morning when my two-year-old and I walked down to the water near our house with the baby in the stroller, we threw rocks into the water and watched the splashes.

My son tried to reach his favourite big rock, and he said he couldn’t do it. But he stuck with it, he tried, he reached further. He did not give up. And soon enough his tiny fingers grasped the edges of this rock, he grabbed it.

He did it.

The story became part of our family legend as The Rock That Says “You Did It,” the mantra I’ve repeated to the kids when they have to reach within them to find an extra piece of courage for whatever challenge they face.

That boy is almost eight now. He reads for hours and tells me how time travel could work one day. It took him a few years to learn how to ride a bike, he fell off, his confidence shattered, he had to find something else deeper inside of him. He did it. He can ride almost anywhere. He learned how to swim. He plays soccer. He learned how to lose at games and how to play people who are better than him so he can learn how to win.

I’ve watched from the sidelines of his life as he learned and mastered anything he wanted to learn. How did he do it? How did his brother (now nearly six) learn to do anything? They disappeared into a quiet, focused place. They set their mind to learn, it was like the world around them vanished while they repetitively drew letters, sounded out phonograms and pushed their bodies.

And I watch them with a silent envy. Why is it so easy for you? Where do you get your energy for this? Where did these reserves come from to work hard? How are you able to overcome failure?

I wrote about the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge yesterday, but if I’m honest, there is one group of people I thought about more than anyone else: Mothers of small children. Yes you, the one who read about this Challenge and thought, “Not for me.”

I can imagine that you thought the idea of 30 minutes of time without distraction is a fantasy, and that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, both my children are in school in 2019. Yes, it feels like the absolute greatest luxury of my life. But no, I haven’t forgotten what it was like. When my kids were still with me at home, it didn’t matter what their age, the idea of undistracted time was a fantasy.

I started a load of laundry.

Someone needed food.

I folded a t-shirt.

Spilled milk had to be wiped up.

I read to my kids.

Their noses needed wiping.

I put one to sleep.

The other needed help on the toilet.

Then I stepped on a piece of LEGO with my left foot while my right foot landed in a squishy pile of breakfast oatmeal on the floor. Obviously.

In those early years of motherhood, I was distracted by something necessary every few minutes. A stream of activities that were constantly interrupted all day long, all week long.
Into this mix came my smart phone in 2014, and when I had a few minutes to spare, I had a piece of technology in my hand that connected me with family and friends around the world. There were beautiful things, like seeing photos of my new niece a few hours after she was born, but it only heightened my distraction. I found myself unable to pay attention to almost anything for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time My kids got older and had activities, but I would sit on the sidelines of a swimming lesson, bored, and scrolling through my phone for no reason. Fast forward to 2019, and I’ve found myself watching a movie on Netflix and looking at Instagram at the same time.

Ladies, there is apparently scientific evidence out there for the fact that this was killing my brain cells. In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes late Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass’ NPR interview on the subject of multitasking. Nass studied behavior in the digital age. Newport says on page 158, “Nass’ research revealed that the constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain.” To NPR’s Ira Flatow, Nass said in 2010:

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

from p158 of “Deep Work”

I don’t want to be a mental wreck. I don’t want to multitask anymore. I want to take what time I have and devote it toward focused work, whatever that work may be.

Nass is talking about people who choose distractions while they are working. As moms, there are many distractions we don’t choose, our children are a natural, wonderful (and not) part of our lives, they are packages of distraction, and that is just fine.

But what about the way we choose our distractions? The texting, the apps, the cooking while filling out forms? The emailing while doing a bank transfer? The Netflix watching while social media watching?

I want present in my life today the same resilience and brilliance I see my in my children. The way they attack a task and focus? It’s how to learn. It’s why your kids and mine go from not reading to reading. It’s how they learn the monumental task of writing real words. It’s how they learn to ride bikes and swim. They repeat a skill they did not know over and over and over again without doing anything else at the same time.

They believe they can do it. You know why? You and I are on the sidelines cheering them on. Telling them to try. Encouraging them to move past their failures and struggles. Telling them to keep going, reach further, the rock is within your reach. You can do it, kiddo.

Hey Mum of small kids, that message is for you, too.

You can do it. You can reach further. That skill you want to learn that you think is too hard? You can learn it. It is not too late.

I want to dare you to take this challenge. However hard it may be for you in this season of your life. The care and nurture of your children is important. Your role in their lives is irreplaceable. But it is not the only thing in your life. Don’t let your mind go to waste. You need your brain to function for a long life of meaningful work, however you choose to define the word “work” in your life.

This is not the time to be more distracted because there are already things that will distract you. That should distract you.

Push yourself to do mental work that will challenge you. It doesn’t have to be for money. It doesn’t have to be for a boss. Make yourself think harder. When you’re bored (and lord knows, I was bored a LOT with small kids), push past the urge to scroll mindlessly through your phone. Pick up a skill instead.

Tips on How To Work Undistracted When You Have Small Kids

  1. Pick work that you genuinely want to do – don’t pick something that you feel you should do
  2. Talk to your partner if you have one – tell him about this in detail, ask him how he can help you
  3. Set aside the time – I think the same time daily is what will work best
  4. Wake up before your kids – be honest with yourself, can you really do this?
  5. Plan to do it after they are in bed (be honest with yourself – are you someone who can work at night? Don’t do it if you cannot)
  6. Give your kids 40 minutes of screen time
    1. Take them to the toilet before, put a large snack out for them and their drink bottles.
    2. Explain to them that Mommy is going to have alone time as well
    3. Go into a different room and close the door.
    4. You get 10 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to do your work. Set a timer and do your work until it ring. I wish I had done this when my kids were smaller.
  7. During the three weekends, ask your partner to take care of the kids while you do your deep work, maybe try to push yourself to 60 minutes.
  8. Find a friend with small kids to do this with – encourage each other, swap kids to help each other do your deep work

Now tell me: If you’re a mum of small kids, what could you focus on for 30 minutes daily for 21 days? What would you love to do? How could you do it? If you don’t have small kids, do you have a lady friend in that stage whom you could help out? Could you pass this on to her – encourage her to try?

mums first day of school shoes

Hey there, lady, I was just at Kmart buying a spare (cheap) drink bottle for my boys today, and they took 10 minutes to pick which one they wanted, and I was thinking about you and me and the first day of school. Here are a few things I want us to know.

They go to school, and you go to school. We all get schooled. They learn to read, we learn how to read them better. They learn how to get along with other kids, how to add and subtract, how to create and discover and write and learn. And so do you. It will be about how use your time, how to get along with teachers and parents, how to discover yourself as your time constraints change. You’re going to learn just as much as they will this year. 

When you walk up to your child’s classroom, expect to cut through a thick layer of invisible anxiety, first in yourself, then in everyone else. It is impossible to overstate the hopes and dreams and fears of every mother standing at the door as she releases her precious cherub into the ocean of the world. Every other kid looks like an octopus or a shark, and Nemo has a broken fin. Give her grace because this isn’t easy, and if you are honest, it’s not easy for you. All of us have invisible fears about our children that we hide behind our bragging and comparing. But you’re afraid, and this year you get to learn how to find your way out of the fear. You get to see the other kids as just kids who are all imperfect, all learning, and all on a pathway of discovery.

Speaking of bragging or comparing, you don’t have to do either. Protect yourself from this. When someone tells you something great about their child, it’s not an insult to your child or an invitation for you to tell a better story. You’ll find the women with whom you can connect who will have a genuine interest in your life and your kids, who don’t see your life as a threat to theirs. Wait for those people. While you wait, get rid of your own instinct to brag about yourself or your kids. There’s no need to fear, my friend. You are in process, and you are going to be ok, too. No need to come across as anything else to anyone else.  

At times it will feel like you are standing in a line with your child and every smile, every conversation with someone new, every invite for a coffee or playdate is going to feel like approval, the badge that says I am Someone, I am a Good Mother, I have a Good Child. Fight against this mentality. You don’t have to talk to another person at drop off. You have time to make friends. Friendship does not come easy. It takes time to lay down a groundwork of trust. You don’t have to tell the other mums you meet every deep, dark thing about your life. You don’t have to tell them the inner workings of your family life.

It takes a long time to find other women with whom you can genuinely connect who then you can deeply trust. Waiting is worth it. And if the women in your life end up not being in school, that’s totally fine, too.

Your kids don’t become magically different at school. The responsible kid will still be responsible, and won’t lose hats or jumpers or drink bottles. The kid with her head in the clouds, will still have her head in the clouds. Get this kid cheaper things. No need to feel guilty about that, this way you can replace their things without heaping shame on them. There’s a lot for kids to keep track of at school, they shouldn’t feel bad about losing a drink bottle here or there. We’ve all lost our expensive phones, right?

The teacher gets a version of your child, likely you get a different version. Both versions are real and true, and the joy of being a parent is working to understand all versions of our kids and helping them integrate their compartments into a whole. Your teacher sees a different side of your child, and you need their insights. Your teacher is your teammate, if you work together, your child wins. 

(An addendum here: There are I’m sure a tiny handful of terrible teachers out there – I’m sorry if you have one. Get on your child’s side, fill up their tanks with encouragement when they are down. Pray that the experience will teach them about empathy and perseverance. Talk to school admin. Hopefully next year will be better.)

Learn to see your child as one in a group, not the only one. The teacher has to attend to the group, and there are many others he or she needs to pay attention to. Your child is not especially deserving of unique attention. At least not more so than anyone else. Trust that every child will get the time they need. Trust that you are still your child’s number one influencer. Whatever their school cannot give them, you can fill in the gaps at home.

When you hear the thought, “My child deserves (a better teacher, a nicer table-mate, smarter classmates, more current technology),” replace it immediately with a list of what you can be grateful for. I’m thankful my kid gets to go to school. I’m thankful my child has food to eat. I’m thankful for clean water. I’m thankful for warm clothes in the winter. I’m thankful for a summer hat. Entitlement will cloud your judgment, entitlement will not let you see your kids for who they are, entitlement will steal your happiness.

Your child has unique needs that you can see more clearly than everyone else. But remember that there is a school full of kids. Every kid is there to learn, to develop as a person, to grow and to change. Learn to see other children. Learn to talk to them, appreciate them, learn to see your child as one in a group. We want them all to succeed.

Expect there to be issues between your kid and other kids. This may be the year you find out that your child isn’t as truthful as you hoped. It may be the year you find out that they like to steal or cheat or hit other kids. Maybe they started cutting class or failing a subject. Don’t let the disappointment you feel in your child become a disappointment you feel in yourself. Your kid gets to make his or her own decisions – this is true of a five-year-old and an 18-year-old. Their decisions are not always a reflection of your home or your parenting. They are their own people. Yes, you’ll have to lay down the necessary boundaries, but guess what? Your kid needs your love and your anchoring support in them as a person especially when they have disappointed you. And you and I need another lesson on how to dig deeper to find that unconditional love everyone needs.

Find the soothing words you need to use on yourself and your kids for specific stressful situations. For me it is this sentence, “We have enough time.” I always give us permission to be late. The irony of course is that we are almost never late, but giving all of us the permission to run late allows for a peaceful attitude in my heart and hopefully theirs.

You are going to need so much wisdom to know when you need to deal with something with your child and when you need to involve their teacher, other parents and members of the school. But trust that when you need wisdom, you will receive it. Walk into your decisions with a humble confidence. You can do this. Please tell yourself this every day, every week, every term. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. 

Trust that you will make mistakes.

Expect your kids to make mistakes.

Plan for the teachers to make mistakes.

See mistakes as the doorway for all of you to grow.

You’ve got a year of growing ahead of you, my friend. Here’s to the new branches in your life, and here’s to the good fruit.

Now it’s your turn: I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got a kid starting school in 2019 or continuing on in school? How are you feeling? Drop a note in the comments. Got any good tips to share with the rest of us? Just write it all out here – we need all the ideas, right?!?!

It was a piece of pan-fried white fish, peas and some pasta covered in cheese on his plate, the kind of dinner he would normally inhale without complaint. Seafood and carbs are his favorite. Tonight though he pushed it around with his fork, his frown deepening. I asked him to eat it, but he snapped at me saying he would not.

You know the feeling when you put something down in front of your child, and you’re certain, This will be a hit. The usual thoughts cropped up in my head, “He’s disobedient and needs to be disciplined. I can’t believe I’m having to deal with this. I’m going to make him eat this or he will be in trouble.”

“I won’t eat it, Mommy,” he whined at me, his voice getting higher and angrier by the minute.

I don’t know what made me do it, but I reached across the table and broke off a piece of his food and tasted it.

The fish was cold and unsalted. I would not have eaten it.

Continue reading at The Better Mom (if you’re reading in your email, please click here).

confessions graphic FINALapples

Dear Devi,

Hey, you over there, can you hear me? Yes, I heard the lady in the church crèche, too. Her son was talking at 10 months, and I saw your heart filling slowly with fear. You wondered about Little Boy – nine months at the time – and why he didn’t have words yet. You’re feeling afraid, afraid that you haven’t read enough, talked enough, spent enough time together, and you’re wondering about development, intelligence, autism.

How is comparison working out for you today? Here’s my opinion – not very well.

You thought you were great at not comparing him to other babies, but that’s only because when you compared him at the beginning, he was doing fine. There was no reason to worry and lots of reasons to feel like you were doing a great job.

Because that’s what comparison was about, wasn’t it? You needed all the evidence you could find that you were an adequate mother, that you were figuring out this baby thing, that you were doing a good job. In the absence of a progress report, salary or job performance evaluation, what you had instead was a baby, and there had to be a way to find out how he was doing you were doing.

Was he rolling over in time? Yes. Was he sleeping well at night? At the beginning, yes. Was he napping? Like a star. Did he cry for long periods of time? Never.

You desperately needed to know you were doing a good job, and he made it so easy for you to do that in the beginning. Comparison seemed like the only way you could know for sure that you were enough. You were enough because he was doing well. You knew he was doing well because he was winning a game. 

Here’s the thing, Devi. Children aren’t trophies, they are your treasures, your relationships, your gifts, but they are not trophies. They are not evidence of parenting successes or failures. Please don’t set yourself and your son up for a co-dependent future. He can own his successes, and he can own his failures. Your successes and failures are yours to own.

The more you feed the comparison monster, the more it will grow. Put yourself around comparison-oriented people, and the monster will thrive.

You don’t want this way of life for yourself, and you don’t want it for your children. You long to be the mother that only you can be because you are unique, with a unique past, moving toward a unique future. And you want your children to live free without the fear that they can’t meet a certain standard set by other people or even set by you. Little Boy, he wants to know that he can live, grow, thrive in a way that is his alone, not the way the sons in other families live. No other family in the world is like yours, every family has it’s special purpose, so don’t lock yourself into the box that comparison will build for you. 

So relax a little. You’re free to be a good mother, you’re free to be the mother you are supposed to be, the one who cooks with her boys, the one who doesn’t have lots of rules, who sings and dances daily, the one who reads a lot, who doesn’t give baths, the one likes to sit and think and think and think and so many other quirks and oddities and specialities and normalities. This is you. No need to be anyone else or try to meet someone else’s standard.

When you compare yourself, when you compare your children, this is what you are doing – making someone else’s life and standard the best thing and measuring your worth and your life to that standard. Whether you succeed or fail in the comparison game isn’t the point, as long as your way of measuring success is comparison, you will just keep having to do it. This is why it is so destructive – it keeps you coming back for more.

And one day it will wear you out. You will get tired of succeeding in your comparisons because it means you won’t get close to people. You will get tired of failing in your comparisons because it will make you feel worthless. But before it does that, it will wear out your kids and give them lots of reasons not to trust you. Every child gets to the point when they realize a parent is measuring their worth against someone else, and it immediately leads to feelings of inferiority, guilt and resentment. 

No comparison, Devi. Never. Ever. No one has a perfect family, and your family relationships are not your achievements. When you understand who you and Husband are, how you parent, who your kids are and what makes them tick and build the family only you are supposed to be, you give yourself, your husband, and your boys the gift of freedom.

Set your family free from the burden of comparison and watch them thrive in the light of grace and truth. 

Love,

Devi

If you’re interested in more thoughts about comparison, I wrote about it for 31 Days in October 2012.

This post is Day 23 of 31 Days of blogging in October. I am writing this month about my first season of motherhood, sharing stories and lessons that stayed with me from that time.

(New to this series? Start here and follow the links to each day’s post.)

confessions graphic FINAL

There are musicians that partner with you in the different stages of life, and for me Sara Groves is one of those. My little sister gave me “Fireflies and Songs” before I left for Geneva to be with not-yet-Husband.

He and I started our three months in the same city by getting engaged and ended it with our civil wedding. It was packed three months, let’s say. The majority of our relationship was long distance, so these months were virtually the only time we had to understand the daily ins and outs of each others lives.

I used to sit in my apartment – a friend’s that she generously shared with me in her own last months in Geneva – listening to song after song from “Fireflies,” writing in my journal, staring at the Jet D’Eau and the lake, trying to come to grips with what was happening in my life. It was a happy time, yes, but it felt so deep, so serious, the process of getting ready to commit my whole life to another person, and I found comfort in the raw honesty of Sara Groves’ words about the difficulties of marriage.

A few weeks ago one Saturday morning, I got out of bed and walked down with Baby in my arms. Husband and Little Boy were in the kitchen making pancakes, and this CD was playing through our sound system. I wasn’t fully down the stairs before the wave of memories took me back to the couch from Pakistan, the fireplace, Anna’s little speakers on the floor.

We’re looking for the music in the music box, tearing it to pieces, trying to find the song… 

I had almost forgotten the order of songs on the CD because when the next song started playing, I heard season after season of the past three years of babies and bellies, marriage and changes and life. I read somewhere that Groves wrote “From This One Place” about her struggle with the onset of anxiety in her life; she didn’t have it before but one day it started when she was about to go on stage and play (I’m working off my memory for this one so it might not be correct).

Maybe one of the reasons why I struggled so much was there was never a real diagnosis, no one ever thought I was depressed or anxious. I was functioning, and in a lot of ways I was more than “just” functioning. We ate well, our apartment was in order, the boys were always taken care of. I didn’t shower often, but you know. There was never anything technically wrong, but it didn’t change the sadness of soul that was permanently there.

From this one place, I can’t see very far… I hear her singing from our white curving staircase in the yellow house in Stockholm 2013, and it’s the words I want to go back and tell my 28, 29, 30-year-old self.

All I could see was breastfeeding that would never end, never having my body to myself again.

All I could see was never having a full night of sleep again.

All I could see was the mountain of work that childcare is, the physical, emotional and spiritual work that seemed to never ever end.

All I could see was time I no longer had with the husband I loved and with myself.

All I could see was that hobbies, friends, the things I loved were changing, disappearing.

All I could see was a new version of myself, a version I could not recognize, a person I did not know.

From this one place, I can’t see very far. From this one moment, I’m square in the dark. 

My outlook was one of total lack – I did not have enough, I did not have what I needed, I did not have what I wanted.

But the truth was so much simpler.

From this one place, I could not see very far. 

Difficult times always feel desperate, and it’s these seasons when we are most tempted to make declarations about our lives. “I will never _______, it will always ________.” It wasn’t the time to judge, to have expectations, to whine, to complain, to try to change people and control. It was the time to grieve and to wait. 

I walked into the kitchen where Husband was making pancakes, and Little Boy was screaming excitedly waiting for his. We sat down as a family at our Saturday morning table, pancakes with maple syrup with two boys that we adore, Husband holds my hand, Little Boy holds the other one and we pray.

We thank God for giving us our daily bread, butter and maple syrup.

And I move on from this table with life, with confidence, with peace, with security, with joy overflowing, and truly I cannot believe it because I can remember how deep the pain ran these past three years, the bitter taste still on my tongue. But I know the battle I waged against insufficiency, I can recount every fight with the demons of insecurity and disappointment, and I know that when I look at my open hands today and see beauty and good and joy and safety and peace, I know that these are the fruits plucked only from the tree of suffering.

From this one place, I can’t see very far…. these are the things I will trust in my heart: You can see something else. 

What are you facing in your life today? What declarations are you making about this time? Is it the time to judge? Or the time to wait? 

This post is Day 15 of 31 Days of blogging in October. I am writing this month about my first season of motherhood, sharing stories and lessons that stayed with me from that time.

(New to this series? Start here and follow the links to each day’s post.)