two hands, please: giving multi-tasking a break

“Scwatch my back, mama.”

My three-year old, Owen, has developed a taste for having his back scratched lately, and several–okay, at least a dozen–times a day he comes to me for a good fingernail rub. It’s hard to resist a curly-headed little boy with his shirt pulled up, so I usually give him a good scratch and then try to go on with my day.

Except that Owen is insatiable. I go in for a smooch and he covers me with kisses. I give him a hug and he clings to my neck for a half-hour. Give him a quick scratch and try to move on with your day? Well, next thing you know I have a teary-eyed little boy looking piteously up at me, saying “Pwease, mom? More?” And I’m a total sucker for cute, teary-eyed boys who can’t pronounce their “L’s” yet…so I scratch away.

But I still have a household to run, deadlines to meet and other kids to care for. So, as many moms do when they’ve got a lot on their plates, I’ve started multi-tasking my way through back scratches. I’ll scratch his back with one hand while talking on the phone, surfing the web, helping a big sibling with homework or flipping through a magazine with the other. Once I even rinsed dishes in the sink with one hand while scratching his back with the other, as he stood on a chair next to me. (The kid is resourceful.)

Tonight was like many other nights. Owen came into my room for a pre-bedtime snuggle, and after a while, started asking for his regular back scratch. I obliged, but my thoughts were on other things: a blog post I wanted to read, the e-mail I needed to check. So while he lay on his tummy next to me, I scratched away with one hand and surfed the ‘net with the other. Of course, it was annoying. Because I was facing forward, the arm I was using to scratch him was contorted and uncomfortable. And you can’t surf nearly as fast with one hand as with two.

So I made a split-second choice to focus my energy. Turning toward Owen, I put both hands on his back and began to scratch: big, swirling scratches, light, raking scratches. He sighed and sank into the pillow. From the side of his face, I watched his eyelashes flutter down toward his cheeks. I noticed the smoothness of his babyish skin, the curls on the back of his neck. After a few minutes, he was fast asleep, and I’d lulled myself into a kind of trance.

I don’t know if it felt better for Owen to have two hands on his back rather than just the one. But it felt better for me. Turning my full attention to something that I’d been lately regarding as just another routine drag on my time and energy, I got to enjoy the simple, but profound pleasure of physical contact with a little person I love (not to mention the meditative feeling I got from scratch-scratch-scratching away and watching him drift off to sleep).

Am I writing off multi-tasking forever? Nope. With five children, a household to run and a busy career there are plenty of times that I simply must do more than one thing at the same time. And hey…I’m pretty good at it. But the two-handed back scratch served as a gentle reminder that every now and then, it’s important to lay down a few of the balls I’m juggling, turn my attention to one task, and approach it with intention and focus. Not because I’m a martyr or feel like you have to sacrifice every moment of free time for your kids. I’m not, and I don’t. And not just because focusing is better for my children, though I think you could certainly argue that it is. Turning the multi-task switch to “off” every now and then is better for me. When I make a point of tuning into one task or need at a time when possible, I feel calmer, more satisfied, and more connected to the people in my family and the rhythms of my household.

Which, of course, will make the next time I need to juggle eight things at once just a little bit more bearable.

Have you found that multi-tasking can sometimes get in the way of enjoying the more subtle pleasures of motherhood?

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