There is a great deal of talk in the legal industry at the moment about ‘mindfulness’ – the notion that when engaged in a task, or interaction with another person, you must consciously be ‘present’ in that engagement, so as to give the most to it, and get the most from it.
In the context of spending time with children, that means being ‘in the moment’ – breaking free of all distractions and giving children your undivided attention. That might be playing in the surf; a game of backyard cricket; a bike ride; or building a go-cart. You and them, doing something together, with no distractions.
This focus is the stuff that children’s memories are made of. Reflecting on their childhood, it is the things they will talk of as an adult. My own father was a very busy person running the farm I grew up on, but when I think back, I can remember specific instances of having his attention – him giving me horse riding lessons; him building our treehouse; him helping me build a working clock for a school project. These were not long periods of time, but they stick in my memory.
Mindfulness is, I’ll admit, not a strong point of mine. My friend and colleague, Fiona Caulley, writes about it on her blog (www.fionacaulley.com.au), and gives me one-on-one guidance at times, but I still fail one hundred percent. I am a repeat offender in thinking about work when I should not be, checking my email when I should be concentrating on something else, and being physically present but in fact thinking of something else at family gatherings. You get the picture. I am well and truly in the remedial class when it comes to learning to be mindful.
I recently had a week away from the office, at the beach with my family. I ended up going to the office on 3 of those days, and doing some work and making some telephone calls to clients almost every day. Of my 5 days off, I lost about 3 to work. When I looked back at the photographs taken that week, there is one taken of me (the cover photo for this blog), sitting at my computer, in my swimmers, managing a difficult aspect of a client’s case, while the family was at the beach.
For me, that is pretty normal, but it did occur to me at the end of that week that I had not been very mindful at all, and that my family had been wanting to spend time with me – while I was physically present, I was not always really present in the sense of giving them my undivided attention.
Of course, there has to be ‘balance’ in life. We all have jobs, and have people who rely on us. The ability to go ‘off grid’ from all of that for extended periods is not always realistic. I have a family who understand this reality, and who don’t give me a hard time about it.
But I confess that I left that holiday thinking that I can certainly do better, particularly in terms of being a more mindful parent, at least for defined periods of time.
I know that separated parents must struggle with this ‘balance’ all the time. In the post-separation environment, their children spend time in their household while ‘life’ – work and other commitments – continues around them. During an intact relationship, distractions can be managed, because they are ‘absorbed’ when children have 2 parents present – between those two parents, at least 1 of them is probably engaging with the children at any one time, so any deficit created by distractions is ‘covered’. In the context of 2 separate households, however, each parent is suddenly ‘doing everything’. That necessarily makes them less available to their children, less available to be ‘present’ in the interactions with those children during the time spent with them. The separation necessarily stretches resources.
But for separated parents, being mindful about interactions with children is even more important. Parent-child relationships endure a form of trauma following separation, making mindful interactions even more critical to the conservation of that relationship.
What to do about that situation? For the reasons above, I clearly have work to do. But the following has represented my thinking:
- Be mindful. The impact of the most expensive Christmas gift will pale in comparison to your children’s experience of spending time with you. Your objective is to really engage with your children – you are giving them your presence, not presents.
- Plan creatively. Isolate how you can carve out blocks of time to spend ‘in the moment’ time with your children. Focus on allocating chunks of ‘one-on-one’ time for short-periods on each weekday, and longer periods of time on weekends. This can be planned activities (such as going to the beach), but it can equally be impromptu (an unplanned game of soccer in the backyard).
- Quality, not quantity. Don’t lose heart if opportunities do not always present themselves. When time resources are limited, mindful interaction with the children can be short (reading a chapter or 2 of a book). You can do other things when you have more time.
- Be realistic. No separation can be perfect, so do not set yourself up to fail. Recognise that you do have work and other commitments, and that those things are central to ‘life’ going on, and will therefore impact on your availability. Very few of us have the ability to ‘drop everything’ and play with the kids all of the time, so don’t set those sorts of expectations of yourself.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Accept that there will be times when the best laid plans fail, and when life gets in the way. Chances are your children understand your responsibilities, and that those responsibilities are magnified in the context of separation. That makes the time you are able to spend with them, mindfully, even more valuable, and therefore, memorable.
- Stick with it. Life is such that if mindfulness is not front of mind, it is easily forgotten. Consciously review your commitment to it, and remind yourself to include it in your weekly routine.
Ultimately, 10 and 20 years from now, your children won’t necessarily remember the gifts they got for Christmas in 2016. They will, however, remember the quality time you spent with them during the Christmas holidays that year – you and them, in the moment. Make that your gift to them this Christmas holidays, and into 2017.