If you evaluated your day to day life with brutal honesty, could you really say you’re a present parent with your Littles the majority of the time?
Until recently, I thought I was. I spend every waking (and sleeping) moment with my munchkin. Every part of my day, she’s right there with me. My life is structured around taking care of her, after all!
But as time went on, I began to realize I wasn’t actually living in the moment with her. I was physically there, but rarely centered in the present.
In an effort to spend more quality time with my daughter, I’ve made some drastic changes to try to come back down to earth.
Today, I hope to persuade you of the importance of being present with your children, help you evaluate how present you really are, and find effective ways to become more present in your daily life.
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Are You a Present Parent?
Of course I’m present: I’m with my kids all day long!
Sure…but how much of you is really there?
Being present is about more than just existing physically in the same room. There’s a lot more to you than just your body (as I’m sure you’ve informed men in the past).
Presence involves being there emotionally, mentally, sensorially, creatively, and socially.
How often have you put on a smiling front for another person to mask the emotional turmoil you were feeling inside?
We do this a lot with our children, and sometimes its necessary. Being a mom is hard, draining, exhausting, and there are times we are upset about things that we can’t express to our Littles.
But to be fully present in the moment we have to clear any emotional storms we are experiencing, at least temporarily, so that we are free to emotionally experience and interact with our Littles.
I do this constantly: I am in the middle of a task, but my toddler is making it very clear that her attention bucket needs to be filled, so I take a break and play with her in order to get back to what I was doing.
I’ve physically left the task at hand, but my mind is still whirring with my big to-do list (and grumbling that now I’m getting behind!).
When you spend time with your child, you have to be able to clock out and bring your mental focus into the present. No worrying about what you were doing, or what you still need to do.
This is a tricky one that requires some focused intention. You might not have thought of it this way before, but part of being present is opening up all of your senses to experience the world around you.
Toddlers are pros at this. They are continuously in the moment, interpreting their world through what they feel, smell, hear, see, and (for better or worse) taste.
Somewhere along the line, though, we lost that natural openness of our senses. We fell out of sync with them, and forget to use them until one is stimulated so strongly, it might as well have whopped us upside the head.
By engaging our senses, we are more likely to build stronger, more vivid memories. They also serve to deeply root our sentiment in the experience.
Many days, mom-brain has my head feeling about as thick as professional grade diaper cream, and the best I can muster is the presence of a zombie.
But kids are so full of life and creativity! They need our enthusiasm and participation. I’m not saying you have to be a talented artist (although I do pride myself on my ability to draw balloons).
This is the time to unleash your fun side! Little children don’t judge. They don’t think your dumb because the Cockney-flavored accent coming from their beaver puppet isn’t spot on.
Build with your child’s blocks, make their stuffed animals interact, enjoy the 13 course meal of odds and ends they’ve prepared for you.
Your child wants a relationship with you. You absolutely need to be their parent, but they also want you to be their friend.
Have conversations, even with a young/preverbal toddler. Do things together that both of you enjoy. Let go of your caregiver mentality once in a while and just come down onto your child’s plane. (You will learn a lot while you’re there.)
Why Do We Need to Be More Present?
Sometimes I get through a whole day of taking care of my toddler only to realize I’ve barely interacted with my toddler at all.
I spend so much of my day trying to do just enough to pacify her so that I can get this task done, or that one started, that none of the time with her was really quality.
I bustled her in and out of the car, nursed her while looking at my phone or reading books, tossed her in her highchair with some food to keep her occupied so I could [insert task], and so on.
Each day I try to write out my day in time blocks (even though, lets be real, those blocks never look as good as they do on paper, and it finally occurred to me that none of those blocks were just for spending time with my daughter.
I don’t know about you, but I want my children to remember the time I spent with them more than the time I didn’t.
I don’t want my children’s memories to be full of mommy behind a phone screen, or mommy’s back doing chores, or mommy seeming bored when they were excited to play.
And on top of that, I want to look back on these early years and feel fulfilled by short time I had, not full of regret for prioritizing the dishes over my babies.
I want to remember squeals of mischief and crumbling block towers more than my Instagram newsfeed. I want to think about how much time I got to spend snuggling my Littles more than how much I wish I could go back and hold them more.
Your children will grow and develop whether you’re there for it or not. If you’re not present with your children, you will miss out on their creativity, their innocence, their mischief, their intelligence. They want to share their discoveries with you and experience life together.
Yes, someone still needs to get the chores done, but with a little intentional, there is no reason you can’t spend high-quality time present with your children AND fulfill your other duties.
The Mindset to Help You Be More Present
Time is a limited resource, just like money. But unlike money, you can never get more of it. Once it’s spent, it’s spent.
Yet, even though money can be restored, or even multiplied, what is at the center of financial responsibility?? A BUDGET.
And what is a budget except for intentionally telling your money where to go?
But then over here we have time, a resource that can never be recovered or increased, and what do we do with it? Do we budget it like our money?
Sadly, many of us don’t. Then we wonder where it all went.
Just like we tell our money were to go, we have to be intentional about how we spend our time. While we are young parents, it might seem like we have a lot of it (especially during newborn nursing marathons), but really it is very limited.
Personally, I don’t want to get to the end of my life and have my tombstone epitaph read, “Always kept a clean kitchen; master of the Kon-Mari shirt fold.” I’d rather my family treasure me for attentive time spent exploring life together than valued for my ability to put food on a plate and wash it afterward.
And yes, you can be both a homemaker and a parent, but it requires that you BUDGET YOUR TIME.
If you keep this mindset, that time is a scarce resource, it will help you to put into perspective the value of the ways that you spend it and critically evaluate any external demands being placed upon it.
The #1 Thing That Keeps Me From Being a Present Parent
I spend almost every moment of every day “with” my toddler. She was a high-need baby who has grown into a high-need child, so her demands on my attention are constant. However, I do sometimes need to get things done, or just need a break from her, but I end up feeling like my wheels are spinning in mud all day because my energy is ineffectively divided between my to-do list and my daughter.
By the end of the day, it’s been a huge struggle just to get anything done, every moment a battle for forward progress.
I hastily transfer daughter-duty to my husband the instant he gets home, and then start it all again the next day.
This cycle makes it very hard for me to be present. Because it feels like I’m ALWAYS spending time with her (and not getting much done), it’s hard for me to want to step away from everything else and give her even more of my energy.
I feel like a burned out motor!
But here’s the thing:
When you don’t have time to do what matters, you’re doing too many things that don’t.
13 Simple Ways to Be a More Present Parent
Being intentional and being present require some degree of strategy and foreplanning.
When I look at my to-do list, I don’t see many items that “don’t matter.” Everything on there needs to get done.
So I have to set my priorities, and plan my day according to what my toddler needs. She has quite a large emotional bucket that needs to be filled, so I know I need to be intentional about pouring into it so that I can be more effective with my time.
#1. Stop trying to be the perfect parent
First of all, whether you’re consciously doing it or not, you’re probably trying to be the perfect parent.
You want to do all the “right” things, do what’s best for your child based on the “research,” conquer a massive to do list, and still take your child to do fun stuff.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be an amazing parent and fulfill your child every way you can.
But trying to be the PERFECT parent puts too many things on your to do list and too many restrictions on your time.
When it comes to being present with your child, stop worrying about what you should do, outside of clearing your mind and being in the moment. Forget about how your chosen “parenting philosophy” says you should interact with your child, forget about what the research shows– if you’re worrying about all that stuff, YOU’RE NOT PRESENT.
A personal example…
Some days are really rough, and I’m totally zapped, frazzled, emotional, frustrated, you name it; and it’s only 11 a.m. Sometimes the way I can take a break from it all is to watch a show with my 16 month old. “BUT THE RESEARCH SAYS…!!”
Believe me, I know. But I refuse to feel guilty for spending time with my child doing something she enjoys when it’s what I’m able to do in that moment.
If sitting down with her to watch Curious George for 15 minutes and talking about what’s happening in the show helps fill her emotional bucket (and helps me to recharge to have more to give her later), then that’s a tool in my belt.
Obviously, there are limits to what’s healthy– there’s a big difference between watching TV with my Little for 30 minutes vs. 3 hours.
Stop letting other people make you feel guilty when you’re already giving everything you’ve got. Stop trying to be the parent someone else decided you should be.
#2. Play hide-and-don’t-seek with your phone
You had to know this was coming.
Our phones have become one of the most invasive distractions in human history, and they are draining away the limited time we have with our families.
They promise entertainment and social connection, making our chores take longer so we feel like we’ve worked longer than we have (leaving our Littles impatient).
The promise to capture life’s precious moments, placing a viewfinder between our eyes and our children.
They promise instant connection and security in case of an emergency, keeping themselves always at arm’s reach.
We are shackled to our phones and we are the most willing prisoners in all of time, gleefully enslaved around the clock, and the worst part is, we think we’re coming out on top with all of the benefits and conveniences they provide.
Throughout the day, keep your phone in one room instead of carrying it around the house with you. Periodically check in on it, but leave it there.
I have been amazed how often I forget it even exists when it’s not dinging in my pocket.
So what if you miss a text, or a photo op, or a few Instagram posts?
News flash: people lived fulfilling and memorable lives before smartphones. Even people who wrote letters and only had family portraits made once a decade still lived amazing lives.
Your phone is a demanding and relentless master. Don’t give it power over your relationship with your child.
#3. Focus on ONE thing
When you’re with your child, JUST be with your child. When you need to wash dishes, just wash dishes.
Easier said than done, I know.
But, if you can get into the habit of doing this, you will be more effective at everything you do, and be less distracted with your child.
Here’s the problem, though. A lot of days, my toddler wants NON-STOP attention. She usually will not spend time in another room from me, and when she is in the same room, she is wrapped around my leg saying, “Up? Up?”
When I don’t pick her up, she cries, tries to turn me around, pulls my clothes, and then proceeds to do anything that will force me to stop what I’m doing (like trying to eat dishsoap).
So how do we get around this issue? When I’m in reactive mode, I’m either stopping my task every 30 seconds to redirect whatever my toddler is doing, or I’m trying to find something creative to occupy her just long enough to make some progress (which rarely works).
That means I need to be PROactive rather than reactive. I know what I need to do every day. Most of my days look pretty much the same. So why am I always surprised by this back-and-forth struggle?
Instead of trying to jump into my to-do list as soon as my toddler wakes up, I can take time to put some attention into her emotional bucket. I can hold her, read books, make breakfast together, take things slowly.
After spending time with her (being PRESENT with her), she’s a lot more likely to accept some independence and allow me to get something done.
I can also make sure I’m taking time in between tasks to work on filling her bucket, too, instead of trying to do everything on my list back to back.
#4. Set priorities
When it comes down to it, you have to decide what’s really important to you.
My schedule is pretty much pared down to the bare minimum, but sometimes I still struggle to get it all done. What if everything on my list is important?
When EVERYTHING is important, nothing really is.
Even when everything is “important” or necessary, you still have to set priorities.
You can set broad priorities, like 1. Family 2. Housework 3. Blogging, ect…
You can also set specific priorities in those categories, like:
- Have breakfast with my husband
- Read books with my toddler
- Go to the playground with my toddler
- Speed clean
These are very basic examples, but you get the idea. You have to think about what really matters most to you long term, and how to strive for it in the short-term.
#5. Write intentions and review them daily
Something you can do to keep yourself centered and in a present mindset is to write out your intentions. They could be something like:
- Live slowly
- Use all my senses
- Make my toddler feel important and loved
- Prioritize snuggles over dishsoap bubbles
- Be more like my toddler (minus the tantrums)
They can be anything that reminds you of the big picture way that you want to live. Their purpose is to pull you out of your day and all of its to-dos and remind you of what really matters to you.
You can even post them on a wall somewhere you see them frequently to be reminded more than once a day.
#6. Only do the things you WANT to do
If your routine agenda is full of things you don’t enjoy or wish you could get out of… then why are you doing them?
Life is too short for that nonsense.
Be more present by paring your commitments down to ONLY the things you want to do.
But what about the things that are necessary that we don’t enjoy?
First, if it’s really something mandatory (like much of our housework), try shifting your perspective. Instead of doing dishes because you’re, “the only person in the world who seems to be able to clean a kitchen,” do them because you love to serve your family and cultivate a tidy, calming environment for them (and yourself). That makes it something you want to do (even if you don’t always enjoy it). You could come up with a totally different reason, but figure out the positives and focus on those.
#7. Observe more/start a “Little” journal
At this point you might be wondering, “Does being present mean I have to constantly be engaged with my child?”
On the contrary! It is actually good for you to sit back and observe much of the time.
Not sit back and scroll through Instagram, and glance up every once in a while.
Sit back and actually observe. Quietly.
If you child asks for your interaction, then gladly give it, but if he is busily playing something on his own, enjoy the show.
Not only does it grant you intimate insights into the mind and development of your child, it also helps YOU to be more present. You can even enhance this time by having a “Little” journal with you to document your observations.
#8. Wake before your family
Hey now, this is getting personal. Now I have to sacrifice sleep to be more present? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?
First of all, no one said anything about sacrificing sleep. To wake up earlier, you need to go to bed earlier.
Related: How and Why I Get Up at 4 A.M.
To be more present during the day, you need some time to yourself where nobody needs anything from you. For a while, one of the big challenges I had to remaining present was feeling like I never had any time for ME; that my life revolved around taking care of other people.
That caused me to be negative and cranky much of the time, internally stomping from one to-do to the next, and giving my daughter attention felt like just ANOTHER thing someone needed from me.
Once I started getting up before my husband and baby, I noticed I became so much more relaxed and present during the day.
#9. Eat the frog
Mark Twain is credited with once having said something to the effect of, “If the first thing you do in the morning is eat a frog, you can go the rest of your day knowing the worst is behind you.” (There’s not really any good evidence that Twain said that).
The point is, if you get your most unpleasant task out of the way early in the day, the burden of that task is lifted, and you get the satisfaction of your achievement.
Rather than have something hanging over you the whole day, try to get it out of the way early, if you can.
#10. Spend more time outside
Nothing brings you back down to earth quite like time spent outdoors. There’s something magical about fresh air that just slows down time and brings all of our worries back into perspective.
Maybe it’s because I spent so much time outdoors as a child, when my responsibilities were few and the world was full of possibilities, that I am transported back to a version of that innocence of childhood.
Whatever it is, being outdoors is a sure remedy to get out of a funk and check my perspective. It relaxes me and clears my mind so that I can enjoy the moment with my toddler.
Plus, [most] kids LOVE being outside, so you can’t go wrong!
#11. Get time away from the kids
When all of your time is spent around your kids, taking care of your kids, being touched by your kids, it’s hard to actually feel present with them. Some part of our mind is dreaming of escape!
And that’s okay; that’s normal. It’s healthy to get time away from your family. Be intentional about working out a time where you can trade parenting duties with your husband so that you can have mommy-time regularly.
For me, that means reading for an hour by myself before going to bed each night, and going to a coffee shop during the day on Saturday to work (on posts like this one).
I also wake up super early so that I have some time away from my toddler before the day starts, because otherwise I’d be with her all day and night.
Another great thing I’ve worked into our routine is taking my toddler to the gym with me. Our wonderful gym has free child care, so I can drop her off to play (with people who AREN’T ME) and I get to exercise by myself for a while during daylight hours. Win-win!
#12. Set boundaries
This is a challenge for me. As an attachment parent, my natural inclination is to always be what my toddler wants. However, now that she’s getting older, what she WANTS me to be and what she NEEDS me to be are not always the same thing.
As an infant, we considered her wants and her needs to be virtually aligned. Now they’re beginning to diverge as her wants now extend beyond survival needs.
She may want me to give in to her every demand at the drop of a hat (or sippy cup), but what she needs is for me to set clear boundaries and define what behavior is appropriate and what is not.
If I am in the middle of reading my Bible, I can teach her boundaries by refusing to interrupt what I am doing for whatever it is she wants (unless it’s to potty; I will make an exception for that). Over time, she understands the boundary being set (that it is inappropriate to interrupt Mommy’s quiet time), and entertains herself until I am finished.
As a toddler, crying is no longer the only form of communication at her disposal, and that’s when it becomes my job not to give her everything she wants, but to teach her effective communication and help her to help herself.
I could write a lot on this, but the point here is: setting boundaries can help you to be more present by improving your focus and effectiveness at accomplishing tasks and improving the quality of your time together.
#13. Keep a notebook with you
When you are spending directed time with your child, a common issue is that you will suddenly remember something you HAVE to do, and you are afraid if you don’t do it right away, you will forget.
Mom-brain is no joke. But to circumvent it and protect our presence of mind and the time we spend with our Little ones, we need to be proactive.
A great suggestion I found in The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies was to keep a notebook on hand so that if you do think of something, you can quickly jot it down and allow it to leave your mind.
Final Thoughts on Present Parenting
Does this mean I have to be constantly engaged with my child?
Quite the opposite.
The point is that you devote specialized time JUST for your child and you give her your FULL attention during that time. That doesn’t mean you have to spend an hour making wooden dinosaurs drink tea. You can engage some, and then gradually back off to a position of observation.
Does it mean I need to drop everything whenever my child wants attention?
When you need to turn your attention to other things, you should not and need not feel guilty for setting boundaries between your time and your child’s demands. It will help you to feel good about fulfilling your own duties, and your Little will benefit more from a mama who isn’t feeling pulled in 7 directions.
What it takes to be present
Remaining present is more challenging than ever before, and becoming ever more so by the day.
The expectations for mothers climb higher, the demands of parenthood, broader, and the opportunities for distraction are endless and attractive.
Because of that, we can’t just sit back and hope to naturally be present parents.
We have to be intentional.
What obstacles do you find keep you from being present with your child/children? How could you overcome them? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
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