Zen and the Art of Mothering

By Susan W. Specht
Issue 91, November/December 1998

four kids, looking up, in the woodsOnce upon a time, I would rush my children around the block, through the grocery store, and out the library door, hollering, “Come on, let’s go!” or “Hurry up!” But I’m slowing down. Maybe I’m getting older. Or maybe–and I hope this is true–I’m getting wiser. My kids and I are so much happier, it turns out, when we do less. When I schedule fewer activities, I’m more peaceful and my kids sense that contentment. With fewer errands, I’m so much less likely to hiss in a store, “Don’t touch that!” With shorter lists of things we have to accomplish, I’m more apt to listen when my twin four-year-old son and daughter say that they don’t want to go to dance class today; they want to be with me.

In part this slowing down has been prompted by my favorite memories from childhood. What I remember most vividly are relaxed times with my mother as we folded laundry in the basement or drove in the car. Being together mattered, not what we did or where we went. All children should have such uncomplicated, sweet memories. But I had begun to worry mine wouldn’t. One day, after three trips to three different stores, Nicholas had started crying in his carseat. When I’d asked what was wrong, he’d said, “Too much places!”

At the time, I was wrestling with working and mothering. Because my schedule was so packed, I tended to whisk my kids around at an adult speed, meaning fast. But eventually I began to suspect that when I rushed, my children felt less valuable. Their ideas and their sense of timing were overruled with, “No you can’t play at the park for five more minutes. We’re going to the grocery store now.”

Today, on those days when I have not made any plans or we have only one place to go, I notice my kids’ eyes meet mine. They smile more often. They seem to feel better about themselves, because their pace and preferences are listened to and acted upon. By scheduling less, I’m building my children’s self-esteem more.

About a year ago, I decided to reduce my work hours and to work from home. Since then, I’ve dramatically simplified our lives. I turn down invitations to attend piano recitals or science exhibits. Yet I must also practice saying “No” to my own endless suggestions. My brain keeps an ongoing, updated list of possible activities: kids’classes at the zoo, swim lessons at the pool, cooking courses at the community center. But if I acted upon even half of these ideas, we’d be rushing about again, with tired kids and a tense mom. So I firmly remind myself I don’t need to expose my kids to every possible activity. By the time they’re teenagers, they’ll have been innumerable places. I need not race them daily from birthday party to ice-skating lessons to soccer practice. Someday when they’re older, they will thank me, I believe, for the time we’ve spent stopping and picking up pinecones on our walks.

Last weekend I planned a beach walk for my four year olds. I took their rain boots along so they could splash in tide pools and puddles. But when we pulled up at the park, both kids pointed to the playground. They wanted to stop there first. After 10 minutes, Anna suggested we take a path into the woods. A long hike, with their legs working hard, led us to a large tree that lay on its side. Exposed roots dangled in the air. “Let’s play pirate!” Nicholas exclaimed.

Part of me wanted to say, “Stop playing in the tree roots. We’re going to the beach.” But I kept silent and let myself watch and appreciate their imaginative – and completely spontaneous – play. As the pirates danced about the tree, I pulled a paperback book out of my pocket and sat in the shade on the edge of the path to read.

Twenty minutes later, they were tired. “Let’s go back to the car,” Anna said. We didn’t make it to the beach at all that day; yet I felt the morning had been one of our best. Each child had felt the power of making choices. No one had fought or fussed. It was then that I realized that one of the keys to parenting is letting your children go at their own pace–and learning to make that pace your own.

This lesson was underscored for me two days ago when we set out on a walk from our home. Towards the end of the mile-long hike, near the crest of a hill, Anna called, “Stop!” And we did, settling on a wide grassy strip under a pine tree. The children curled up on the soft ground. The blue sky unfurled endlessly above us. And I noticed a spectacular flower blossom in the shade of the tree, a flower I wouldn’t have seen had we kept on walking. At that moment, I knew that I felt no desire to be anywhere else or to be doing anything but this. When we pause for our children, I understood, we are the ones who are truly refreshed.

Susan W. Specht is a single parent to twins Anna and Nicholas, now 7, as well as a potter and writer. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

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