The Importance of Opting Out

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As a parent who works all day, every work day, I feel that I need to be there, with my kids, all the rest of the time. Lately, though, it seems to be a self-defeating philosophy, as 42 to 67 percent of the time (who's fact-checking?) I'm with my guys, my mind is elsewhere. I'm turning toward the dishes instead of toward the kid—with the sweet face that has only half of the expected teeth—when he's telling me at about the kickball game at recess. And even as I'm listening to one brother explain to me why the other one sucks, my thoughts are wandering to the camps I need to schedule, the work files I need to find, the conversation in the car I could have handled better.

The cognitive load of everything that needs to happen—combined with the general chaos of a house with two kids and three pets—overwhelms my ability to focus on what matters most. I end up homing in on tiny, inconsequential details, barking out cliche orders: Put your bowl in the dishwasher. Pick up your socks. Stop playing with the dice. Just be a robot. (That's what I might as well say.) I'm all for instilling a sense of communal responsibility but hearing zombie compliance demands escape my lips just makes me hate myself.

This morning, I saw it all unfolding in this way. We were scurrying around, getting ready to leave for the mountain. It'd been a long week and I didn't have the hustle to get out of the house. I was happy to make mango smoothies and wrangle small people into first-layers, but every cell of my being was resisting putting on my own. The dog had already chewed a shoe and needed some love. I made the choice to stay home. I'd have some moments to unwind from a particularly stressful week. I'd take care of the dog and the laundry, the piles of papers and drawers full of expired eyedrops and cosmetics older than my kids—things I'm sad to admit were consuming far more brain space than was appropriate. 

As soon as I said no to snowboarding (and changing out of my pajamas), I opted into a card game with Julian while Jon helped Kai finish getting ready. When the guys left, I took the dog out. We jogged on ice-spackled dirt roads framed by fields and trees, past sweet cows and wind-stirred waves, on a majestic property set up by a generous family long gone. Dragged by a dog who outpaces me by minutes on a mile, my steps kept the beat of a tune by David Bowie, now deceased. Each fresh inhale diluted the bolus of mundane concerns blocking my brain; four miles later, I'd exhaled most of the bullshit. 

I came home and cleaned out the bathroom drawers. Did two loads of laundry. Ate a healthy salad sitting in a chair. Made a to-do list for the week and planned out meals. Recycled a bunch of papers. Left for an event—and when I got home, I listened with 97 percent attention to the boys' daily events, helped them brush their teeth without glancing at my phone and performed head rubs and back scratches worthy of a some sort of meditation medal. 

Today's takeaways: Partial participation is not quality presence. Energy management is integral to positive parenting. Go for the run.

Nicci Micco