A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook this morning: “New Mamas Get Nothing Done (and Other Untruths)” by Anne Rust. While its primary argument (it’s impossible to “get stuff done” when you have new little people, so we have to stop measuring our lives that way) is not novel, it is certainly true. But lots of people write about this problem without proposing a solution: a way to measure our lives differently. Rust comes close to doing this, in the tail end of her piece, and it’s worth holding up and elaborating on her suggestions.
The basic problem with our ordinary forms of impact assessment (and please pardon any jargon you encounter here; this is kind of a field of mine) is that most of them measure outcomes rather than processes or relationships. So a course taught is a valuable outcome, whereas a day spent doing reading and course design is, well, extraneous. Still worse would be a day spent talking with colleagues or practitioners in the field to help you understand new pedagogical innovations…though these things are, for any teacher, of obvious worth, they are extremely hard to document in terms of impact. “It helped,” we might say. “It was crucial to my development of the course concept” or “staying current in the field leads to greater teacher effectiveness.” But when push comes to shove, what gets documented? Courses taught; perhaps popularity of the teacher; perhaps student grades or test scores if there are any macro-measures in relevant fields.
Map this onto the lives of new parents, and you see the problem. You’re at home all day, which means you ought to be taking at least basic care of your house — instead, the dishes are piled higher than ever and you no longer know if you even own a vacuum cleaner. Your work life has narrowed to one particular job, so you ought to be able to master that pretty quickly, making room for other things in life (like reading novels, I mean, if you’re not going to work). And of course there’s no excuse for basic lapses of hygiene and nutrition, because showers and grooming and shopping and cooking are all so easy to do when you have nothing else going on. Bwahahaha.
Mercifully, Rust points out some of the many other things that ARE going on, that are unrecognizable to people who aren’t (or don’t remember being) parents of babes. There’s the feeding, the diaper changing, the trying-to-get-baby-to-sleep, the tummy time, the walks outside, the sensory stimulation. There’s the twenty minutes a day of reading, the twenty minutes a side of breast-feeding, and the twenty minutes or careful management it takes your baby to transition from “light sleep” where they SEEM asleep to “deep sleep” where they may STAY asleep. All this and more is what goes into parenting the newest among us as they begin to sort their world, to learn night from day, to settle into a physical world that is no longer always in motion.
This gives us very little to point to in terms of productivity. As my sister-in-law once said: “Some days its enough for me to say I kept somebody’s butt clean.” Well, sure. Some days that’s true. But I HATE those days. I confess that I am a relentless impact-assessor, and my forays into mindfulness have helped but not healed that tendency.
So you can imagine my joy when Rust suggests that we “Take a deep, slow breath. Close your eyes and measure your day not as tasks, but as feelings, as sounds, as colors.” This feels, to me, like impact assessment for the mindfulness-beginner. This is measurement for those who aspire to outgrow measuring.
Or, more pragmatically, this REAL impact assessment for the first time. This is a form of evaluation that really seeks VALUE rather than benchmarks. And it’s enormously significant because that kind of evaluative practice eludes us all. Interestingly, good and experienced mothers (who, I might add, are rarely if ever considered experts on anything beyond their immediate domain, which is absurd) may well have the inside edge on impact assessment practices that the social sector has been striving to develop for a long time: how to measure relationships and development and feeling and heart.
Pick an activity someone might want to assess, like education or social service. You can measure classes taught or meals served, but how do you measure the relationships that build between teacher and student, between soup-kitchen volunteer and meal recipient? How do you begin to understand the value of smaller-scale enterprises where the synchronicity between outcomes and impacts more than doubles the intended effect? How do we explain (to funders or legislators or would-be participants) that our work makes a difference not because we’re giving someone a meal (which of course we are) but because we are engaging with them in a way that honors their basic dignity, makes room to hear their needs, and holds open the possibilities of their own growth into a better life?
These are the things we do for and with our children, but the scale is so long and the outcomes so expected and so standardized that all we notice are the failures. My kid isn’t eating; my kid can’t roll over yet; my kid is a lousy sleeper. We are not invited to imagine these truths in a different register, held up to a different light: my kid would rather spend time feeling every texture of his food than eating it; my kid giggles hysterically when he lies on his back and I tickle him and he can’t escape; my kid has the capacity to sit quietly in a dark room, alone, for nearly an hour (I know because I hear him humming from time to time).
So yes, with Rust, I’d advocate for measuring our days differently. Maybe it’s an image in memory, words or picture, that stays with you. Maybe it’s that pitcher of hydrangeas on the kitchen table that small hands helped you bring in and arrange. Maybe it’s the moment that your elder son tried to help up his little brother when he fell down in the orchard. Heck, maybe it’s the three UNBELIEVABLY delicious pumpkin donuts you ate at said orchard (of course, I’m just making this up). But whatever it is, there are elements that make up our lives, alone or in family, with kids of any ages, and short of memoir we have few ways of recording or valuing them.
So I propose this, and I’ll call it a mindfulness practice here though I’d call it impact assessment in my professional life: every day, take a few notes. Poems, pictures, specific memories. Discuss them at meals or bedtime; record them somewhere you won’t lose them. Date them. (And yes, Facebook counts. If it is worth anything it all, it is as a space for piecing together the mosaic of our lives.) Colors, feelings, images, songs, smells, experiences, laughter.
If we were to treat these things as data, we’d go back after a period of time and see what we’ve valued. We’d find patterns and repetitions, and these would tell us who we are and how we’ve lived. The green days, I would note — those days of heavy rain and overwrought lushness that we’ve had so much of this summer. And the recent return to baking as the weather cools. The funny things my children say. The soft down on Malachi’s back and the delicious softness of his cheeks.
“Doing nothing” does not mean doing nothing. It means not doing the things that are regularly assessed and counted, the things that are valued by a system both patriarchal and action-oriented. In fact, many practitioners of mindfulness juxtapose the “doing” state of mind with the “being” state of mind; the idea is that when we live in a place where “doing” is all that matters, we get depressed and stay that way. The solution is to learn to occupy a “being” state of mind, to simply be, which in turn frees us up for quiet, peace, recovery, compassion, wholeness.
So rather than a lose-lose, we mamas have here before us a win-win. We can yield the floor and say yes indeed, I am NOT doing; I am being. Watch me thrive. Or we can invite our measuring, critical questioners (often ourselves, I know) to look more deeply, to use different, truer eyes and alternate methods of documentation. I love the idea of the first, but I am eternally grateful for the second: “being” is not always my strength, but “doing” in the service of love and presentness, well, that I can do.
Excellent, Anna. You have captured so many of my thoughts and feelings since becoming a mother. The sense of “getting nothing done” has driven me half-insane most days (and fully insane others). Interestingly, I also found it crazy-making to do the notetaking that you suggest. I tried to do that throughout Kara’s first year – partly out of a drive to have a sense that I was “doing something” and partly just for posterity’s sake – and the days I didn’t manage it I felt like an utter failure. Those days were many because I was so darn busy DOING so much all day (and too exhausted at the end of the day to record a single thing!). When she turned one I felt a palpable relief because in my mind I could finally stop documenting. I truly chilled out after that point – well, at least relative to before that point…! – and started to realize that moments are going to accumulate and shed and accumulate and shed. I can’t capture them. I can’t document them. I can’t do anything but live them. And that, in the end, should be enough. Some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. But I’m actively trying to make more of the former days and to let myself off the productivity hook. Which is, it must be said, easiest done when I have highly productive, structured tasks interspersed in my week (i.e., I’m a crappy full-time SAHM). Finding that balance has been key for me. It’s like if I exercise daily, then I can eat whatever the hell I want daily, too. If I have some task-driven work in my life regularly, then I can allow myself to just be and soak and savor regularly, too. Even when I’m hella busy “doing nothing” as a mom.
Rebecca, I hear you! And your response fits you well and truly in the best traditions of mindfulness — being fully where and when you are, accepting that moments are fluid and fleeting and gone. Which I strive for, most days. But it turns out that I rarely can get peaceful enough to just let things go by ALL the time (this has been true at all ages of my kids; their age made no difference in my process). Rather, I’m fine in the moment, but I do best with those little assessments — the bedtime ritual of whispered “what was your favorite thing about today? What was hardest about today?”; the handful of crappy phone-photos of the kids playing in the sprinkler with a new friend; the brand-new ritual of eating the last tomatoes together and saying goodbye to the garden on the night before first frost. I need something that anchors me in the history of my life and something that helps me see the patterns. I am gifted, you see, in manufacturing experience according to my own lenses, and that has never served me well. These mild and manageable forms of documentation (nothing intense, nothing systematic, just some kind of memorializing) help me live in and remember my life as it really is. This is a beautiful thing.
And thanks for this comment — you’re making me realize I should clarify these distinctions in the post. Thanks!!