I’m kind of a sucker for making lists of goals and plans, and I love the fresh-slate feeling the first real “business day” of a new year brings. On the other, when the last cookie is eaten or tossed, the last holiday decoration is put away, and the last personal item left behind by a formerly visiting family member is located and set aside, I’m left with a sense of letdown, of being at loose ends.
Back to life, back to reality. Back to diapers and deadlines and dinners my kids turn their noses up at, without the cheery hum of carols, the smell of baked goods and long chats with family and friends over a glass—okay, several glasses—of wine to break up the monotony and paint the ordinary with the rosy glow of not-so-ordinary. Sure, when you think about it, all the things that make the holidays special: food, friends, family, music—are things I have in my daily life anyway. But the holiday is like a charged-up version of real life, imbued with Bing Crosby and the gentle buzz of sugar cookies and Syrah.
So it’s a little hard to take when the holiday fun comes to a screeching halt and I’m back to business as usual.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my life. I love that I’m able to be home with my kids, and I find a certain amount of comfort in the steady, predictable routine that propels us through each day.
But this motherhood stuff? It can be really boring.
Especially when you spend the bulk of your time parenting young children. Case in point, my typical day. I wake up at 6:30; get my oldest out the door, then have my tea and toast. I wake the next-two oldest up, get them out the door and turn my attention to the youngest two. We all get dressed. I make breakfast, check my email while Clara is occupied in her high chair, then clean sticky bits off her hair and hands and set her on the floor. The next hour is spent watching her crawl around while being always ready to pounce, as she somehow manages to find tiny bits of apparently delicious who-knows-what in cracks and crevices I didn’t even know existed.
The day drags on. I might play a round of Old Maid with Owen, and read a few books aloud, or if I’m feeling more ambitious, I’ll cook up a pot of play-dough or break out the glue and glitter. More digging random bits out of Clara’s mouth. Then time for her morning nap, during which I’ll get some work done. Then time to throw the kids in the car and head to the school to pick William up from kindergarten. Then we all head home for lunch. Then lunch dishes. Another diaper to change. Another nap. Wait for big kids to get home. Serve snack. Wipe up counter. Rinse. Repeat. It’s not hard. It’s just not very exciting, and sometimes a life full of “not very exciting” can start to feel suffocatingly hard.
Sure, lots of days we take an outing to the library, or the children’s museum, or a play date. Maybe I’ll take the kids to the nursery at the Y and go to yoga. And of course, there is a lot to be said for just going along for the ride and really appreciating those small, fleeting moments you have with your kids—you know, the ones that people with grown kids are so fond of reminding us that we’ll never get back.
But even on those days where we keep busy, and even on those days that I really take the time to smell the roses and appreciate the small joys of the baby’s chubby cheek against mine and the way my four-year-old’s hair falls sweetly in his eyes, in between the moments of wonderment and joy and humor, there’s still going to be a whole bunch of boring.
I hate boring. In fact, I think boredom was my worst mental-health enemy when I was first adjusting to motherhood. It’s so easy to start feeling utterly stuck: you can’t shake up the routine unless you can afford or find a sitter, (or unless you’re willing to deal with the consequences of a missed nap or glares from strangers as you lug the baby into a bar or the movie theatre.) Hell, you can’t even run around the block without a lot of to-do and preparation. Here are little people depending on you to be steady and predictable and reliable, even as the steadiness and predictability of it all seems to be smothering you.
And some of the things we do to ease the boredom even make the situation worse. We watch bad daytime TV until we actually start to feel dumber. Or we read fifteen pages worth of nasty comments on a blog post for the rush we get out of something happening, already—even if it’s happening to somebody else. We don’t have time to read anything meaty, or take up a new hobby, or learn a new skill, we reason with ourselves; so we settle for more easy and mindless forms of entertainment. Which, as it turns out, also tend to get pretty boring, thus perpetuating the “I’m so freaking bored” cycle.
The truth is, I don’t really mind the endless little minutia that goes along with parenting. I rather enjoy blowing on Clara’s belly after fastening a fresh diaper, or pretending to be chasing germs off Owen’s teeth with the toothbrush. I don’t even mind clearing the table or sweeping crumbs off the counter: there’s a certain Zen calm to restoring order to the house, to the keeping of a routine. No, it’s not the mindless tasks I find myself dreading; it’s the idea that there’s all there is.
But when I really think about it, I know it’s not all there is. It can be hard to remember when we’re elbow-deep in the tedious slop of life, but even if most of our time is taken up by minutiae, that doesn’t mean our minds have to become muddy as well. Maybe our brains are capable of more than we give them credit for. Maybe our imaginations sometimes become flabby, dulled by routine and not enough real input. But we can change that.
Here are a few of the ways I’ve found to keep my brain sharp and happy:
- Choose challenging media. Yes, with hundreds of cable channels offering countless reality shows and celebrity scandal recaps and thousands of blogs (some great, some good, some…well, not) it’s easy to get lost in choices and just stick with what’s easy. There’s something to be said for brain candy, but just like real candy, if it’s all you consume you’ll get bloated and squishy. The good news is, you’ve got a lot of great options at your fingertips. If you’re looking for drama and romance, try the History channel. Join a virtual book club or read literary blogs. Subscribe to a newspaper or weighty magazine and force yourself to sit down and read an entire article without getting up to check your email or Tweet.
- Take Action. Instead of mindlessly watching the Food Network for hours a day (guilty!) try buying those exotic ingredients and-gasp!-making something with them. Or if you’ve been zoning out on home-improvement shows, actually hammer a nail into a piece of wood or slap some finish on a piece of furniture. Shake things up. Don’t just passively watch or read–try doing.
- Check in with a daily source of inspiration. I’ve been following the blog Mental Multivitamin for years because her “Hey, you: do something with your brain already” attitude is a nice no-nonsense kick in the pants, and her blog offers a lot of jumping-off points and inspiring ideas.
- Learn something new. Brains get dull when they re-use the same old circuitry over and over. Working to master a new skill or learning new information literally re-wires your brain, creating new connections and making you smarter. So maybe you don’t have the time or funds to take guitar lessons right now–you’ve still got options. Check youtube for free tutorials, subscribe to a magazine, or join a group for enthusiasts. Even if you can’t jump in with both feet, you’ll learn something by osmosis.
- Develop Discipline. Don’t have time to write, or paint, or do yoga, or practice the piano? Baloney. Look how much time you just spent reading this! Hey, part of happy motherhood is learning how to work with the five- or ten-minute blocks of time you’re granted throughout the day. If you wait around for eight undisturbed hours a day to fall into your lap before you can start working on that novel, you’ll be waiting a long time. Look at it this way: a year is going to go by whether you exercise, or write, or draw, or start your business, or don’t. You may as well devote every bit of time you can to the things that really matter to you. Yes, your kids are a big part of that, but they don’t have to be–and really shouldn’t be–the entire enchilada.
When I’m engaged in my life, the little “boring” bits of motherhood are actually pretty enjoyable. When I’m checked out, every little task becomes just one more burden. I’m choosing instead to engage, and to keep re-engaging every time I find myself starting to zone.
Are you with me?