Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Driven to Distraction

We sat outside playing with sidewalk chalk and soaking up the abnormal 60 degree weather in March in Minnesota.  We drew bulldozers, backhoes, bowls of fresh berries, refrigerators, and flowers.  You know, the normal stuff.  I received a text, picked up my cell phone (because of course it was but inches from me outside - must be always accessible), quickly read it, answered it and put the phone back down.  Sean stopped drawing with his chalk.

Sean: Can you turn that thing off? (though coming from him it sounded like "fing" instead of "thing.")

me: (nervous laughter) Sure... why?

Sean: I don't want to hear it.

While speaking, he'd left his place on the driveway and walked towards me.  I was sitting on the ground, and he was level with my eyes but staring at my cell phone.  He clearly sensed, as he does so frequently, how important my cell phone is to me.  The text message was completely unimportant and mundane, there was no rush, and yet I responded to it as if someone had asked for a prompt reply.  Truthfully, I enjoyed the momentary lapse in reality as I joked with a person far away from me via text, and sometimes I need a little distraction if the present moment is particularly tough.  However, both Sean and I knew that I had distracted myself from our calm, enjoyable, present moment.  Though he and I hadn't been talking with each other in that instant, he felt my distraction and he called me on it.  Can you turn that thing off?

Distraction seems to live with me.  Some distractions are pleasant: the Sunday morning paper, fun emails from friends or family I hold dear, a good book, and baking, baking, baking. (Does it count as a distraction if it takes a great deal of my focus?  I blame Tom, my parents and in-laws for chipping in together to get me a KitchenAid for Christmas.  Baking has really kicked into high gear around here.  Not a bad thing in my world, and a wonderful distraction for my brain.)

Some distractions serve a purpose: the other night while grocery shopping, I gave Audrey a nylon purple grocery bag.  She played peek-a-boo with herself for 30 minutes, laughing hysterically, dropping the bag, watching me pick it up, going back to peek-a-boo, and making friends smiling with nearly every shopper we passed.  Not only did this make the shopping go faster, but it imbued a sense of joy in me and others.

Some distractions create diversions: while cleaning up Sean's poop in his underwear, Audrey inched herself over to the training potty and stuck her hand in. Bleh.  There was nothing in it at the time (thank goodness), but it was nasty nonetheless, and it was born out of my distraction.  Just moments after taking her hand away from the training potty she puked in the middle of the bathroom floor, stuck her hand in it, and smashed it into the tiles.  I didn't see the puke until she had created her own Jackson Pollack puke painting on the floor... I was distracted.

Some distractions are ineffective: when Sean doesn't want to stop an activity to go use the potty, he will distract himself by hitting his crotch.

me: What are you doing, Seancito?

Sean: Huh?

me: What are you doing? It looks like you might have to go potty.

Sean: No I don't.

me: Well you are hitting your crotch, so I thought you might have to go.  What are you doing?

Sean: I am trying to keep the pee in.

me: How's that working for you?

Sean: Good.


Some distractions are hilarious: at church on Ash Wednesday, Audrey distracted everyone around her by taking her Elmo chew toy, holding it up to her face (which made her laugh) and then smooshing it into my face (which made her laugh harder).  This made me laugh AND then made Sean laugh, which meant that no one in our pew or any pew around us was focusing on the liturgy.  She also successfully distracted her brother from being quiet.

Sean: I want to do that!  Can I do that to you, Mama? I want to smoosh your face! SMOOSH!

Similarly in the past week, Sean got easily distracted from being in the bath.  I walked out of the bathroom for a moment to put Audrey's pajamas on, and he jumped out of the tub, run around the house flapping his arms like a chicken while skipping and singing.  He knew that I was indisposed with Audrey and therefore could not chase him.

Sean: (pick the tune of your choice) I'M NAKED, I'M NAKED, I'M NAKED.

me: Sean, are you done taking a bath?

Sean: What, Mama?  (back to singing) I'M NAKED, I'M NAKED!

me: (getting louder to be heard over singing) Are you done taking your bath?

Sean. NO.

me: Then you need to get back into-


me: OOOOOOOOoooookay.

Some distractions take a different tone altogether: I've recently seen how distractions carry an insidiousness. The computer is a huge distraction for me.  On a day that's rough with the kids I find that I'd rather check my email 20 times (even if no one has written) than fully immerse myself in Sean's crabbiness, changing poopy diapers, or Audrey's clingy-ness due to constipation or tooth pain.  I'd rather feel mildly distracted by other things than fully frustrated with these two kids whom I love so much.  Yet I see how mild distraction can slowly eat away at my rapport with them.  The days that I have "just a couple things" I want to accomplish on the computer are the days that the kids seem to go bananas.  Amidst making a doctor appointment, buying a birthday present online, paying a bill, checking email, surfing Facebook, searching Craigslist, changing diapers, helping potty train, and do the dishes, I find our interactions are jerky.

Sean: Mama, will you come play with me?

me: Yes, Sean, as soon as I finish the dishes.

Sean: Will you come play with me now?

me: Yes, Sean, as soon as I change this load of laundry.

Sean: Mama, will you read me a book?

me: Hang on a second, Seancito, I am on the phone with the doctor.

The more I put him off, the more I see a tantrum right before lunch or just before nap time.  I can't be right next to him every moment of the day to be sure, but there are times when I know I need to stop and hear him more clearly.  The days when I can take a break from whatever I am trying to complete and be fully present to both kids, those are the days that flow more smoothly.

I was struck recently by the words on CNN spoken by the Superintendent of Schools in Ohio after the recent school shooting.  He told the media people, the parents of the students and anyone watching TV that they should go home and hug their kids.  He made a point to say, "Don't text them. Don't Facebook them. Go home and hug them."

His words have stuck with me, and I just keep replaying that moment in my head.  What kind of society are we when we need to be told to have intentional, engaged, in-person communication with our children?  Yet, at times I can count myself among the distracted.  Though I don't have an iPhone or smart phone or whatever the hell else, I do have a computer and cell phone, and emails and texts are very enticing to me.  We live in world that is quickly using technology and the internet more than in person exchanges.

I am actively working on being present with my kids and my family.  I try to keep the computer closed and off until they go down for a nap or after dinner if I can help it.  I try to leave my cell phone for periods of time to just focus on them.  I try to not answer the phone during dinner (throw back to dinners at the Agniel house in the 90s, eh, Mom and Dad?  However contrary to rules in days of yore, I do allow singing at the dinner table.  Most of the time, I am the one who is singing, so...)  Even while doing laundry or cooking, I try to keep an element of presence, try to oscillate between accomplishing household items and focusing my attention on them.  Because honestly what in this world is more important than in-person relationships and exchanges?  Facebook, emails, and texts are fun and good in their own right, but I hope to keep them in a place befitting their function.  They can be pleasant, purposeful, funny, and even useful, but I strive to make them less important than whomever is right in front of me.

Sean: Can you turn that thing off?

Out of the mouths of babes. 

I hope in days to come it doesn't take Sean's voice telling me to set down my cell phone.  Of all the external stimuli and distractions, I hope I find an internal censor that keeps me present and engaged with my kids, even in the moments that get rough. Or better yet, I hope that I can respond to the in-person distractions that really matter.  When I feel like the kids are distracting me from making dinner, from getting the laundry done, from making doctor appointments, I hope to welcome them as a distraction.

For example, at church this past Sunday, Sean kept bugging us while we were trying to pay attention.  He was distracting us from listening to the priest and the readers and the beautiful music.

Sean: Mama -

me: Sean, please be quiet, we are trying to listen.

Sean: (in a loud whisper) Mama!

me: (stifled annoyance) Yes, Sean.

Sean: What can we do?

me: Well right now we are listening.  You could play with your toys or read books.

Sean: Can we take a walk?

me: Not right now.

This made him pause, he surveyed his books and toys.  He even considered his Cheerios as snack, but then he found the key to getting my attention.

Sean: Mama!

me: Sssshhh.  Yes?

Sean: I have to go potty.

And so we went on a walk.  When he successfully distracted me from the liturgy, I looked down at him as we walked to the back of church.  He had a spring in his step: proud to be leaving the pew and the boredom.  He was also holding his finger perpendicularly under his nose as if playing the role of Hitler... appropriate for church.  When we reached a place where we could talk in a normal voice, I inquired about his 'stache.

me: What are you doing with your finger?

Sean: I smell something coming from church.

me: Oh, that's the incense.  Doesn't it smell nice?

Sean: No, it's stinky.  I am holding my finger so that I can't smell it.

Clearly.  His ineffective gesture at trying to avoid the incense was very funny.  Though completely distracted from any spiritual meditation I might have experienced in the pew, I really enjoyed this moment with Sean.  I enjoyed stepping away from what I felt I should be doing (paying attention at mass) so that I could better focus on my son.  Was his potty ploy merely a distraction?  Perhaps.  But better to see my son as a distraction, better to respond to the life in front of me.