Just Be a Parent

Being a parent is not easy.  I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.  (I talk about this “parental paradox” in my article on “The Peaks of Parenting.”)

The challenges are great.  To put it simply, being a parent takes time and energy on an order of magnitude far beyond what any non-parent could possibly understand (I certainly didn’t before I had kids!)

I am particularly challenged recently because I am busier than I have ever been (even without taking the kids into account.)  I am teaching an online course on Positive Leadership through U.C. Irvine, I am in the process of publishing my school capstone thesis on “The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing” as an ebook (coming soon!), I am managing my blog and posting a new article every week, and of course I have my real job, as a corporate director of spas for a large hospitality company.

This year, my wife and I welcomed our second son into my crazy life.  So we have been in the throes of those crazy first few months, when a new parent experiments with the boundaries of human functioning through sleep deprivation.  The past months have been a bleary eyed blur of diaper changes, late night feeding sessions, family visits and of course occasional transcendent moments of sheer love and joy with our new baby.

And this week, my first son has been sick.   So layer on to all of the above a feverish, clingy, sweaty, snotty, crying boy, who doesn’t even know what he wants–he just knows he wants something to help him feel better (this means constantly cycling through cries for “mommy”, “daddy” and “Elmo” as he tries to find comfort.)

One thing I learned since day one of being a parent, is that things don’t always go as planned.  It is easy in these moments to get frustrated as deadlines loom, projects back up and the kids are clamoring for more and more attention.  Sometimes it seems as though every time I’m just about to get some work done, one of the boys is needing something.  It’s easy to feel as if the kids are getting in the way.

I’ve found a mindfulness exercise to be a great help during these moments.  I call it “just be a parent” and it is about as simple as it sounds.  When one of my children is in need, it is time for me to forget about work, projects and deadlines, and spend some time just being a parent.

Here’s how it works:

1.  I put away whatever else I’m doing and invite myself to participate in whatever my son wants to do.  For my older son that might mean reading a book, playing with blocks or watching Sesame Street and fast forwarding through all the parts that don’t feature Elmo.  My younger son might need a diaper or a cuddle or a song.  It doesn’t matter what they need, just that I become fully engaged in providing it.

2.  Then, I cycle through my senses:

    • I listen intently.  I try to hear their breathing.  I try to hear their eyelids opening and closing.  I notice whatever sounds are going on around us and see if they notice them too (they usually notice far more than I do.)
    • Then I focus on my sense of touch, stroking their skin or running my fingers through their hair.  I hold them against me and try to feel every instance of contact to the fullest.
    • Then I turn my attention to smell, burying my nose in their hair or in the nape of their neck and trying to breathe in their essence and notice everything I can about the sensation.
    • Finally, I soak it all in visually.  I try to sear the image of the moment into my brain, being sure to record every detail.  I look at my sons and try to notice something about them that I’ve never noticed before.

3.  Then I might experiment with experiencing multiple senses all at once.  Can I see and hear them perfectly?  Or smell and feel them?  Adding more than two senses and it starts to fall apart, but I try to fully experience the moment .

When I practice “just being a parent,” it feels magic.  The most amazing thing is recognizing the mindfulness of the children.  For them, there really is only this moment.  They are not thinking about what happened yesterday or their plans for tomorrow.  They are just right there with you.  When I stare into their eyes focusing all my attention on them, I see them staring right back with the same level of intensity.  For me, mindfulness is an “exercise,” something that requires effort.  For them, it is who they are.

Sometimes all they need is a moment of mindfulness.  If they can get my full, undivided attention, even just for a moment, it gives them the security to know they can also release me.  They can let me go back to my world of deadlines and “grown-up” projects that seem important but really aren’t.  Having that moment of mindfulness reminds us both what is most important, and that if they do let me go. . . I will be back soon.  And there is no place I would rather be.


by Jeremy McCarthy

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12 Responses to Just Be a Parent

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar April 10, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Wooow, Jeremy! Just Wow!

  2. Gigi April 10, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    This was just what I needed today. A gentle reminder that my most important job is just being with my girl. Perfect timing. Thanks Jeremy.

  3. Charlie Wills April 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    Being a Parent is a full time job..to think or act otherwise is to Only Fool Yourself

    Only the time you personally put in counts,,,,168 hours in a week,,,a youngster has about 70 hours of sleep a week leaving 98 hours of play time, 2o Hours a week with Jr.? seems great but is it?
    its about 20%, 1/5 of the week,,,,,

    20% of any test or attention in a task or work is a non-passing grade…

    Reality Strikes again…why do you believe so many kids are lost today?

    My 15yr old young daughter says all the Girls in school with no dad or who’s dad is never around (20%) are the first to have sex and get hurt again and again and again,,,

    My child arrived just the other day
    He came to the world in the usual way
    But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
    He learned to walk while I was away
    And he was talking before I knew it and as he grew
    He said, “I’m gonna be like you, Dad,
    You know I’m gonna be like you”

    And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
    Little boy blue and the man on the moon
    When you comin home, dad, I don’t know when,
    But we’ll get together then, Son,
    You know we’ll have a good time then.

    My son turned ten just the other day
    He said “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on lets play
    can you teach me to throw?” I said, “Not today,
    I got a lot to do” He said “Thats okay”
    And then he walked away but his smile never dimmed
    And said “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
    You know I’m going to be like him”

    And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
    Little boy blue and the man on the moon
    When you comin home, dad, I dont know when,
    But we’ll get together then, Son,
    You know we’ll have a good time then.

    Well he came from college just the other day
    So much like a man I just had to say,
    “Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?”
    He shook his head, and he said with a smile

    “What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
    See you later, can I have them please?”

    And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
    Little boy blue and the man on the moon
    When you comin home, Son, I dont know when,
    But we’ll get together then, Dad,
    You know we’ll have a good time then.

    I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
    I called him up just the other day……..
    I said “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
    He said “I’d love to Dad, if I could find the time.
    You see my new jobs a hassle, and the kids have the flu.
    But It’s sure nice talking to you, Dad,
    It’s been sure nice talking to you……..”
    And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
    He’d grown up just like me,
    My boy was just like me…………..

    And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
    Little boy blue and the man on the moon
    When you comin home, Son, I dont know when,
    But we’ll get together then, Dad
    We’re gonna have a good time then.

  4. Bernie Rydell April 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Hey Jer’
    Bernie here, long time no see. I think Charlie makes a good point when he says it’s important not to “Only Fool Yourself” during the course of parenting; as the forefather of our nation once said, “Honesty is always the best policy.” While it is important to maintain contact with what some call “reality,” I think it equally important to realize your own humanity. We are only people and, as such, we can only do so much. You live an ambitious life fraught with deadlines, meetings, that incessant “beep beep” of the blackberry in the background; the modern age is a tough age. Ever since the cell phone capitulated into popular culture, work can very easily invade 100% of your time (check the stats on that one for me Charlie, I might be off 1/5). Sometimes you need to take a step back, pat yourself on the belly, grab a brew and say, “Hey Jeremy, you’re doing what you can, take it easy on yourself, you’re just living life.”

    Anyway, the pictures are wonderful, your children are beautiful.
    Cherish the moments you have with them; sometimes quality means more than quantity.
    Don’t “experiment with the boundaries of human functioning” too much; that’s a dangerous game you’re playing there.

    All the best,

  5. Charlie Wills April 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Thanks Bernie for replying to my thoughts..

    Life is full of many choices, many many chocies. It is for us to decide with careful thought what to choose to do in life and then do it well…..

    Obviously I can’t play basketball and hockey in the same season, as hey both lay at the same time, I could play baseball and basketball as they play at different times..

    The MOST Important time to be a Dad and Mom is from your childs 2 to 6 year period…Then the Great Windw of the subconscious closes,,,if you are not their BIG TIME for them, well who is happy with a D- kid?

    I took off a bunch of years to adopt 2 in the early 80’s, changed many things about me i believe for the better. Would I do it again? yes, What would I change? spend even more time with them and their friends and only work while they were at school after 5 or 6….

    Personal ambition and having children are like Oil and Water…

  6. R Crabbe April 11, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Good stuff, Jeremy. Just sent to my little brother and sister-in-law who have a new little one….

  7. Patrick April 12, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    “for them, there really is only this moment” Very poignant. Good luck buddy!

  8. Louisa Jewell April 12, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Jeremy I just love this. Savoring at its best! Thank you for the beautiful post.

  9. David J. Pollay April 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,

    What a wonderful dad you are, and what a great lesson for everyone. You’re a good man.

    All the best,

  10. Jeremy McCarthy April 13, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Charlie, I was raised by a single mother, and that song always makes me cry.

  11. Jenny Bondurant April 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Nice post, Jeremy, and good advice. As our kids are now older – oldest is 12 – we are in the stage where spending time together becomes more complicated as they diverge into their own interests and more time with friends outside of our home – and as they realize that mom and dad are going to “ruin” their lives with loving rules and limitations some times. 🙂

    At the end of the day, being there – fully there – is important, no matter what age they are. And I still want to hug my not-so-little boy, even if it is not as easy now to get them to hold still to breathe them in!

    Thanks for sharing …

  12. Stacey May 20, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Absolutely loved this and although I’m not a parent, mindfulness as you described can boost any interaction. I’m forwarding this to my harried friends with kids!

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