I wrote previously about why stay-at-home moms end up with mush for brains, and a list of 7 ways I try to stay sharp. What follows is the rest of the list. Add yours in the comments, please!
I intended to publish it earlier but I’m glad I waited because thanks to a blog comment I received today, I can post the real quote that inspired this series. Thanks, Dianna!:
“I enjoy doing housework, ironing, washing, cooking, dishwashing. Whenever I get one of those questionnaires and they ask what is your profession, I always put down housewife. It’s an admirable profession, why apologize for it. You aren’t stupid because you’re a housewife. When you’re stirring the jam you can read Shakespeare.”
– Tasha Tudor
8) I limit “filler.”
This overlaps with my previous post on infobesity , but specifically for stay-at-home mothers I think we only have so much room in our brain and filling it up with what our friends ate for lunch (I’m looking at you, Facebook), means we have less room for truly enriching thoughts. I have an app on my phone (Moment) that monitors “pickups” for my phone during the day. I try to minimize the knee-jerk reaction to grab my phone in idle moments.
9) I regularly clean out my brain.
There are also many legitimately important things that still don’t need to be taking up brain space.
I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to productivity. I used the Mind Organization for Moms implementation of it years ago (woah, the price has gone up x4 since then!) and it made a huge difference in my ability to think clearly and enjoy the moment I’m in. Lately, for a shot in the arm, I’ve been going through Simplified Organization, which applies similar principles (and is now a similar price. I must be an early adopter or something?). That last link has a free brain dump available right on the home page, which should give you a taste for all the stuff that’s currently taking up brain space. It was a *shocking* amount the first time I did it!
Basically the idea is that your brain should be used for grappling with ideas and savoring life and not as a calendar or a list of reminders. Anything that can be captured in a reliable system (usually lists and a calendar either on paper or digitally) should be off your brain. Then you review things regularly so that you learn to trust the system. “Buy more oats” shouldn’t be knocking about in your head, and neither should “someday I want to look into violin lessons for my son.” One should go on your Errands/Shopping List and the other on your Someday List or Incubation List. The lists have a home and you review them at regular intervals. That frees up your mind to dwell on things that are more consequential and/or delightful.
Even though I’ve followed this system for ~7 years, I find myself having to continually direct myself back to using it because my instinct is to still try to remember stuff. When I catch myself trying to hold too much in my head, I do a Brain Dump. The more closely I adhere to this system, the easier it is and the freer I feel.
10) I homeschool.
It’s not for everyone but I’d remiss if I left this gem out. I have learned so much by teaching my children and it’s an ideal overlap of roles. I get to follow all kinds of neat rabbit trails from everything from astronomy to English history.
Yes, I will be teaching core skills like multiplication four times over, but since each kid is different it’s a new and different challenge each time.
Also, because every education has gaps I have the liberty of allowing my various kids *different* gaps so I get to deep-end on different topics in different years without ever flirting with boredom. For example, my oldest and I learned Latin together and I’m learning lots about English and Spanish grammar because there’s so much carryover. My second learner has a serious interest in fairy tales and folklore and there’s so much truth woven into the stories that are told and re-told that I’m finding it fascinating as well.
If you don’t homeschool, there’s nothing to stop you from sharing some of your kids’ educational journey. If they’re learning about the American Revolution, pick up 1776 by David McCullough or read a biography on Hamilton (and see the show!)
I couldn’t figure out how to play waterglasses when we were learning about frequency, but my daughter was a natural.
11) I make a plan to learn about things that interest me.
I consider this part of our homeschool but I would do it anyway because I love it. Basically I pick something that interests me and then I work it into our everyday life as I learn more about it.
Example: Classical music. I’ve always enjoyed a good classical music concert but I never knew much about specific composers or terms like “concerto” vs. “symphony.” I decided to change that. Here’s what we’ve been doing for the last several years:
Every three months or so, I pick a different composer. (I often look at our local symphony’s season and pick something that’s coming up.) I grab a greatest hits CD or compile my own playlist of iconic songs from that composer that are available in the public domain, then I wake up the kids with that music in the morning. Generally I spend a few weeks per song. It sounds like this: “Good morning, Loves! Here’s Dvorak’s New World Symphony.” Sporadically sometime during the week we’ll catch a ~5 minute segment of Classics for Kids , which gives biographical information about the composer, clarifies different terms, and gives snippets of pieces all in one beautiful, free, power punch. Learning about classical music takes 10 minutes of preparation every 3 months, but other than that it’s just a bit of intentionality and consistency.
Again, and this is important: I don’t do this because I feel like I “should” or because I want to give my kids an academic edge. I do it because it’s interesting to me, and because when we sit down together in the theater for the live concert and our eyes all light up when we hear a familiar theme, it’s a magical shared moment I wouldn’t trade for anything. If you don’t have any desire to learn about classical music, DON’T. Well, maybe do anyway because it’s pretty fantastic. But in general my advice is to follow your own interests or you won’t get far. 🙂
The three of us squeezed into two seats in the concert hall when the pianist, Stephen Hough, took the stage. We wanted to see his hands and there wasn’t a view from the third seat. Blurry picture but awesome memory.
Another example: Trees and flowers. I enjoy being out in nature but I never grew up knowing the names of things and understanding the characteristics of different plants. I decided to learn them so that when my kids and I go hiking or walking, I’ll notice and appreciate more. I’m still not an expert by any means but just by picking up a few books and bringing home items to sketch or observe more closely from time to time, I’ve accumulated a small bank of knowledge I wouldn’t have otherwise, and along with it a whole lot of wonder. Now, while my toddlers are taking an eternity to walk from point A to point B, I’m not (as) impatient because I’m looking closely at leaf shapes and the different kind of lichen on the trunks of trees.
Last example: Shakespeare!
I knew next to nothing about any of his plays, except the one Leonardo DiCaprio starred in a remake of when I was a teenager.
But I knew I was missing out on something great so I picked an approachable play, one that I’d heard of. (Anything that Bruce Coville has retold in picture book form is a great beginning).
– I read the picture book to my kids
– Then we listened to or read a more advanced retelling
– We memorized some lines from the play
– Then sought out a performance, a DVD from the library, or at least some YouTube clips so we could watch it being performed.
I picked just 3 plays a year, we spent a month or two dabbling in each play, 15-30 minutes once a week. Again, small amounts of time add up! Several years later I’m pretty familiar with most of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The characters and whit have enriched my life and led to some great shared experiences with my children as well.
It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, of course! But it can be… anything you like. Pursue any interest with diligence and the rewards will be rich.
I’ve seen my sister-in-law pick up cake decorating with gusto and her girls love to help her in the kitchen. She knows more about the tools and science of perfect cakes than I ever will.
One of the best things my dad did for me as a parent was to get interested in what I was interested in. He still does it even now for his adult kids and it’s magical. As my kids are growing and developing their own interests, I try to notice and join them when I can (without drowning a budding desire with my sometimes over-eager homeschooler enthusiasm).
The first time my oldest showed interest in a lizard, I got a whole stack of books from the library. Now, when my preschooler shows interest in a lizard outside, I just stop what I’m doing and enjoy looking at it with him and maybe try to catch it for him. 🙂
12) I seek out meaningful conversations and connections.
Confession: Small talk is not my favorite. I am around the under 10 set all day and when I do have an adult conversation I much prefer talking about a book, a challenge, or an idea. That means when my husband comes home at night, I bite my tongue when I feel like griping about how many diapers I changed that day. It’s usually more helpful to me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about and get his take on it, or to ask him what happened in his day that made him think.
I love being a group talking about a book we’ve all read, or about our religion, or our mothering journey. I don’t like talking about shopping, sitcoms, or sports scores. (It’s fine if you do, but just know yourself and know what keeps your synapses firing.) The conversation doesn’t have to be high-brow. I absolutely love laughing and crying and connecting with good friends, I just don’t like exchanging pleasantries and then going our own ways. Given the choice, I’d prefer less frequent but more meaningful interactions.
My favorite people inspire me to be better.
13) I won’t stop reading to and with my kids as they get older.
I continue to share great books with my kids long past the age of nursery rhymes and Frog and Toad. My oldest and I are reading Robinson Crusoe together currently. Our whole family is enjoying the Fablehaven series before bed. Learning together, laughing together, wondering together… those are precious moments with my kids and they can absolutely double up with reading books that personally interest me. I passed more than one book club book over to my daughter this year so she and I could talk about it as well. If your kids are in school, you can read the books they’re assigned and finally enjoy them! (Some of my English teachers unfortunately sucked the life out of the assigned books, but re-reading them as an adult has been neat.)
I love this thought from a sermon in 1888 that seems even more pertinent today, as our kids are being raised in a deluge of social media within a selfie-centered culture:
“It is easier, no doubt, to talk about persons, because so many disagreeable remarks spontaneously occur to one. It is more difficult to talk about things and events, because this requires a certain amount of intelligence and reflection and information. If we are to talk of things, we must know something about them.” – Rev. A. W. Momerie
I want that for my family culture, and I think sharing books will help us get there.
14) I regard mothering as a marathon, not a sprint.
Even I’m a little intimidated by this list and I see the simple, imperfect day-to-day implementation of it.
The truth is, though, that there have been many days as a mother when I’m too wiped out to read anything but Dr. Seuss. (His books are easiest for me because I’ve read them so often I can read several with my eyes closed and catch a little rest at the same time. 🙂
Some weeks have been stomach flu weeks. Some months have been morning sick months. I spent 7 years as a mother not learning about classical composers. I’ve spent 30 years of my life knowing next to nothing about Shakespeare. But motherhood isn’t a sprint and I don’t lose if I spend some time in survival mode or I spend every free minute napping with my newborn for a while. Motherhood is a marathon. The small things we do over time can add up to great things in the development of our character and our minds, but only if we resist discouragement and don’t count ourselves out.
It can be slow-going at first to develop an interest, almost like starting to run after a long time away from it. The sensation of running through wet cement is one I’ve revisited again and again over the years. After I have a baby my body insists it was never fit and there’s no way my hips are going to line up properly again. My brain is a muscle, too, so I expect some push back when I’m trying to stretch it and do something that requires focus.
A quote I have tucked away in my head by Samuel Johnson says, “What we hope ever to do with ease we must first learn to do with diligence.” That’s true for running and it’s true for learning.
15) I view my children as an asset to learning, not as a liability.
I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley where the character traits of creativity and curiosity are highly sought after. They are cultivated in the best workplaces through artificial means (enforcing time for passion projects, bringing in outside ideas, granting extravagant cubicle decorating budgets, etc.).
In my workplace? Creativity and curiosity come with the territory. Google and other forward-thinking companies are trying to recapture the lost arts that children come into this world fully equipped with.
My children are excellent noticers. They frequently have striking insights that cut to the heart of what I thought was a complex matter. They have a zillion zany ideas on any given day and I do my faltering best to learn from their example. If I’d write down and seek out answers for a fraction of the fascinating “why, Mama?” questions they ask, I’d never run out of things to think about.
My kids are in charge of spotting raccoons in trees.
In short, my goal is to let my kids rub off on me.
In a move that helps me as much as it helps them, I deliberately allow my kids to be bored. It’s usually a fleeting state of mind that serves to keep that creativity coming. For us that looks like fewer organized activities and little reliance on parents or screens for entertainment. I also try to support their curiosity by saying ‘yes’ when they want to try stuff, hearing them out when they have ideas, and seeking out materials and resources to make their cool schemes come to pass. **Again, something I don’t do perfectly but I love it when I do!**
I called her ‘Silly Goose’ one too many times…
Even with really young kids, just getting down on their level and slowing down (or speeding up) to match their pace of life has been so eye-opening for me. Their spontaneous delight and sense of awe is unmatched.
It was over 100 degrees outside and our air conditioning was out (along with lots of books and toys, apparently). My daughter danced and twirled in front of the fan in complete and utter happiness.
This sweet boy thought he had a pet spider for about an hour and then even after he realized it was just a bit of fluff, he was attached enough to it he took care of it anyway. He named it ‘Billy’ and it was like Horton and the Whos at our house all afternoon.
The opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a child is a gift and I choose to relish it rather than resent it.
Deliberate mothers are incredible to behold. I see it in so many women I admire: the strength and foresight and fierce dedication to their goal of raising a strong family. Unfortunately I also frequently see a pervasive sense of insufficiency if they don’t simultaneously work outside the home.
But the truth is working outside the home doesn’t guarantee (or preclude) a full and beautiful life. The backdrop of our life is less important than our outlook.
I once had a friend with six children tell me she wanted to go back to work as a secretary so she could do something “worthwhile” and “interesting.” I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. Many mothers work because it’s a better fit for their situation but oh, may it not be because they think life at home isn’t worthwhile or interesting!