I think we’ve all felt it…that crazy rush that comes from taking the dogs for a jog while the hose waters the tree out back while your toddler naps and the slow cooker sits on the counter making your family dinner. So crazy efficient. Dogs exercised - check! Your workout - check! Landscaping watered - check! Dinner nearly cooked - check! All done while not missing quality time with your kiddo because she’s napping - double check! Multitasking masterminding at its finest. Except that when you get back, the younger dog is still wired because he had to keep stopping his run while the older dog struggled to keep up. And with all the herky-jerky stops and starts because of the bushes to pee on and the refusal to move beyond the spot where a squirrel just scampered up a tree, the run doesn’t really count because you spent a large portion of the “jog” standing still with leashes in hand. And, as you see a tidal wave of water running down your driveway, you realize you forgot to move the hose to the next tree. And in your rush to scoot out the door, you didn’t turn on the slow cooker so instead of a simmering soup waiting, you’ve got a heap of cold vegetables and raw chicken languishing on your counter all topped with stock and a bay leaf. (What the heck is that bay leaf for, anyway?) And that napping toddler? She woke up when the door closed and according to your partner, has been crying for you the whole time you’ve been gone. Well, that went sideways in a hurry!

Multitasking - when it works, it’s amazing. But I gotta be honest - I’m not sure it really works for me all that often. And yet I feel as though it’s hard-wired into me as a mom to find the most efficient way to move through a day. I feel so productive - dare I even say, exhilarated - when I’m able to click through things that need doing simultaneously. (Side note, if To-Do Lists could have a number one fan, it’d be me. Like really, I’d watch all their Instagram stories, retweet everything they posted, and DM them so much I’d probably get a restraining order. I digress…) But lately, I find myself tethered to a list of items that I’m trying to do while I’m simultaneously helping a kiddo learn how to tie his shoes or watch a movie as a family. I’m pulled in several directions at once and my attempts at multitasking seem to flop. (See above for the multiple mishaps and I can’t even tell you how many burned grilled cheese sandwiches have been victims of too many tasks at once.) And while I’m frustrated when I fail to get something done right and efficiently, this doesn’t touch the failure in how I’m parenting my kids in those moments. It’s not just that the list in my mind yanks my attention from my kids, but rather my need to plow through tasks never allows me to fully engage and be present with them. If I’m always thinking of how I can tuck in a little to-do item to still feel productive and check a box off my list, I’m not really with them.

Is getting a bunch of stuff done at once even really productive? Or is it more along the lines of busy? There’s a major difference here and I think I need to recalibrate. Productivity should yield results, right? I so want to quantify and measure what I can do in a day. I’m also forever overestimating just exactly how much I can do in a day. But when I’m getting ready to fall asleep at night, if I can look around the house and see that I washed the dinner dishes, put away the laundry piles, whittled down my inbox, scheduled both a weekend park playdate and a plumber to fix the leaking shower head, I feel pretty productive. I’ve got items checked off my list. The tangible proof of that completed list makes me feel like I accomplished something. But at what cost? What’s been sacrificed is that I was distracted with my daughter when she wanted to tell me about a “really weird and crazy dream” she had last night because I was trying to unload the dishwasher while cooking dinner while also packing tomorrow’s sack lunches while trying to listen to a podcast for research through one earbud. And after dinner I spent both of the kids’ turns during the Who Pooped? Memory game placing a grocery order on my phone and they had to remind me every time my turn came around and I had no idea where anything was. “Mommy, you’re even missing the easy ones.”

My kids know when my head is somewhere else. In those moments they feel far down on my list and it makes me feel awful that they sense that. The frenetic energy of me trying to muscle my way through a mountain of to-dos with multitasking keeps me from fully relaxing and taking time with them. It filters into the whole mood and I’m worried that over time, it will affect our relationship. I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy for them or me. I run around frazzled and irritable feeling like I’m not doing anything worthwhile and they absorb all that tension.

So I’m trying to get out of the mindset of how I define productiveness versus busyness and choose the bigger option. It’s hard. Honestly, I’m not used to slowing down and settling into a moment. My partner and I laugh because the kids love to cook with him and not with me. He lets them sit on the counter and stir and pour stuff which results in all sorts of sticky everywhere. But he just chills and chats with them; whereas, I would be frantically wiping up as we go along and trying to take inventory of the pantry and maybe even organize that torturous cabinet full of mismatched Tupperware and to-go cups with the wrong lids. But with any plan for multi-tasking thrown out the window, they all have such fun and his food even tastes better! Probably because there’s love and patience in it. Know what’s baked into my food? Efficiency and anxiety. So yea, his Sunday morning pancakes probably are a little easier on the palette.

But I’m trying! And while it’s not a tidy checked box at the end of the day, it’s important to me that I reassess what it means to be a productive parent and trim out some of the busyness. There are some basics, though. I mean, somebody’s gotta do the laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking. If you’re fortunate enough to outsource some of that busyness, then go for it. Hiring someone to help could free up some of the overwhelming need to feel like you have to multitask. Or maybe you start reigning your kids in to help. I’m working on that and yes, right now there are times when their ‘help’ means it takes twice as long and it’s not done nearly as well, but that won’t always be the case and I’m trying to remember the long game on that one.

And honestly, what I’m really trying to do is simply let go of the stress to keep up with it all that makes me feel like I have to multitask. As much as I cling to my completed to-do list as tangible evidence of being a productive person, I may add some boxes to remind me of what’s really important. So tucked right in there with refill inhaler prescriptions and schedule an oil change is:

  • Lay groundwork for open and supportive communication with my kids
  • Foster a sense of self-accomplishment within my kids
  • Protect my children both physically and emotionally
  • Instill a sense of wonder and excitement about the world in my kids
  • Show my kids they are loved
  • Relax

Having those in plain sight on my list might just be the daily nudge I need right now to keep the bigger picture in mind.

This all seems especially important these days as we head into the holiday season. And it’s going to be a different holiday season with some families limiting travel, lots of schools following different schedules, and some traditions completely upended. So I feel like more than any other time, my kids really need me to be present as much as I can right now. I know in my heart I will be a happier person if I step out of my self-proclaimed Family Time Economist role and back off of the multitasking to focus. I’m telling myself now to let go of the busyness - that I won’t panic if dirty dishes sit on the counter overnight, I won’t freak out if someone spills a container of sprinkles over my freshly mopped floor, and I concede that there may be a morning when we don’t have milk or eggs. (I’m sure we’ve got some instant oatmeal floating somewhere in the pantry.) I’m going to work to raise happy, emotionally and physically healthy children who will grow up to be productive contributors to society that have positive, loving, and trusting relationships with me. That’s going to be number one on my to-do list these days. It’s a tall order. And it’s going to take work every day - whether or not I can mark a completed box with a check. But I may as well get started.