The most definitive psychological characteristic of parenting young children is pressure. As soon as one of mine is awake, the pressure is on – and lasts until all three have gone to bed again twelve hours later. The ongoing call to respond to, balance and foresee their imminent needs is my singular, unceasing preoccupation.
Children are codependent creatures. They shift adult priorities around. If a kid poops, that diaper needs to be changed. I cannot decide to continue stirring the sauce to keep it from burning. If I do, I’ll be changing a diaper and the shirt, which has stuck itself to a poop-covered back.
So an enterprising parent like myself doesn’t make sauce that needs to be stirred. There are, namely, other things that have to be done around that diaper, and these things always, always happen simultaneously. Children need to eat a few times a day. They need to be kept away from things with sharp edges or that burn. They need to be taken to school and picked up again (in Holland, a few times a day). When they don’t go to school, they need to be rocked to sleep. They need to be read to and played with so that they know, in the face of all things which keep their parents otherwise occupied, that they are loved and cherished.
I am a multi-tasking person by nature, so this life should be right up my alley. Those personality tests we took in junior high to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up probably indicated that I “worked best under pressure.” I like to be busy.
Two Libyan women I once sat next to on a plane from Amsterdam to Los Angeles pointed this out to me about myself. When they saw my books, magazines, journal and pen, they gawked. In the course of conversation, one pointed to my literary Walhalla and asked me if all Americans were like me. I didn’t get what she meant, and she rephrased her question: “Do all Americans have to stay busy? Is it hard for Americans to do nothing?”
What are the benefits of doing nothing? I asked another supermom, a Dutch friend of ten years, why she thinks it’s important that her kids maintain the ability to stare off into space for a half an hour at a time. “So they have time to think.” This answer echoes the criticism of others in our iPad-happy age. A New York consultant bought an iPad, returned it to the store and wrote a book about it: ‘I get my best ideas when I’m doing nothing – when I’m running and not listening to my iPod, or lying in bed and not yet fallen asleep.’ He chooses, thus, for those so-called “lost moments.” When he has to kill time sitting around waiting for a friend, he no longer pulls out an instrument for social media. He lets his thoughts run loose and gives full credit to the iPad he returned to the store.
Five years ago, in my life before kids, I looked down on those Libyan women for spending the entire eleven and a half hour flight fingering their rosaries and mumbling prayers. The overachiever in me was appalled they had brought nothing to do. Praying? Give me Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century monk who at least prayed while he washed dishes.
I pray while I do everything. I pray while walking to school, or in other words, while pushing the stroller, telling my kids to stop fighting, holding my daughter’s hand while crossing the street, watching traffic, checking my watch, shoving yogurt-covered raisins into hungry hands, adjusting the sun visor over the baby and talking to my oldest about what to tell the boys at recess who will claim that Spider Man is stronger than Mega Mindy.
When I pray, I’m not just repeating my favorite prayer, a la Anne Lamott, which adapted, might go a little like this:
“Help, help, help, please don’t let us be late, please don’t let them shut the school doors two minutes early, oh, they’re still open, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I often say this prayer en route to school, but I’ve also been known to pray for my husband, who might be in an important meeting, or for a friend, whose tears have left an imprint on my heart.
Brother Lawrence has got nothin’ on me.
I am up to the challenge of my pressure-filled life. I am so damn good at getting through it, especially with help from above, which I am constantly interceding. I’d even say that the stubborn ability to pray – to stay in conversation with God – is my stipulation for survival.
But if I make it to tomorrow and hopefully, to ten years from now, even these particular pressures will permanently cease, because my kids will grow up to take care of themselves. I am finite, as is this life. At the end of the day, I feel how finite I am as I collapse into the quiet. While my children slumber and I reach for a book, I hear a different voice:
“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).
God calls us to be still – to drop our notions of achievement and listen to the Spirit. If we know that he is God, we know that whatever other things which preoccupy this life are relative – be that something as voluntary as another download on a Kindle, or something as involuntary as the clock ticking forward over the door of my daughter’s classroom, half a mile away from my the chaos in my living room.
Spring break is upon us. All three kids are home all day this week, every day. The pressure is on the instant I hear the pitter-patter of pajama feet moving through the hall toward our bedroom in the morning. It is busy. But my ear is cocked to the layer beyond the noise, the mess, the pulling of myself in ninety-seven directions.
For God’s stillness is not empty. The time it requires for recognition is not lost, down or dead. It does not conflict with the material needs of the hour, which God knows well. It is a rich stillness, laden with promise. It is a stillness that offers confidence and calm. It abounds with the insurance that the Spirit is present, and that God will always intervene on behalf of those who believe in him.
Be still, and listen.
© 2012 Anastasia Hacopian