Time to be, not time to do

As we all hunker down in our homes, almost certainly with some fear and anxiety about our personal situations and the world around us, parenting has become a very different proposition from just a few weeks ago. For millions of people, alongside the health and financial worries is the sudden reality of being together all day, every day, with their children. Even the lives of families who didn’t do school have notched up in intensity, as clubs, playdates, park and library outings are off the agenda for a while.

Our worlds have shrunk to our nuclear families and the little space we call home. Even drifting off into the future is out of bounds right now. There’s too much uncertainty and too much sadness about what may or may not be.

So, where does that leave us all? It leaves us stripped down, emotionally fragile and well and truly rooted in the present. For many of us, the quality of our relationships with our children and partners is the only thing that will determine how the day goes. And moving from busy, often quite separate lives, to a quieter existence confined within four walls (and a garden if you’re lucky) is an enormous challenge.

Until two years ago, I ran a business I had founded 20 years earlier. I had given my all to this business and, besides my family, it was the single most important thing in my life. A partnership gone wrong left it crashing around me, and I suddenly found myself reeling from the shock of losing something that had mattered so much to me. At the same time, we made the decision to move into the hills near Barcelona to a big, old house on the edge of a natural park. A beautiful, but fairly isolated place. Life was suddenly quiet. I worked part-time on freelance projects, but always from home and with the children around. From Monday to Friday, it was mostly just the five of us together.

I learned a lot in that first year on the hill, and it wasn’t always easy. For the first time in 20 years, I wasn’t managing an interminable to-do list and it was disorienting. I was concerned that my children weren’t ‘doing’ enough. The days had a meandering beauty to them, but also seemed slow and lazy. Free from the approval of the outside world, where was the purpose, where was the meaning? Where would we all end up if we weren’t pushing to get somewhere?

Most of us tend toward ‘doing’, and society generally rewards that. The busier we and our children are, the more we appear to be achieving. Schedules filled with activities might sometimes be stressful, but they are also reassuring.

What I learned that year is that ‘doing’ doesn’t need to be forced. Slowly but surely, out of those quiet unrushed days, all sorts of things started to arise. So many new interests and hobbies came alive that year, all born and nurtured in that quiet space. Each one so meaningful to the person who had discovered it.

And I noticed the same thing happening to me. The days I woke up, anxious about my lack of productivity and determined to get things done, were generally a write-off. If, instead, I treated myself with some compassion, and gave myself some space, things would go differently. On a long walk into the hills I would often find new, unexpected thoughts coming into my mind. Long, nourishing conversations with friends would spark new ideas. Things that really felt right, rather than all the things I ‘should’ do. And, in that happier, less stressed state of mind, I found myself also less resistant to all the little things I really did just need to get done.

In these anxious times, it is easy to burn out on the ‘doing’. Our own anxieties and stress can mean that we are distracted and easily overloaded. Nerves are on edge, things are strange. In the absence of teachers, friends, club leaders and sports instructors, the buck stops squarely with us. So we may be tempted try to keep all the plates spinning whilst dealing with the uncertainty in our lives (and in the case of many, also trying to work from home). But that is likely to be exhausting and to leave us and our children depleted and unhappy. And in this unforgiving mode, when we are too tired to ‘do’ any more, we feel guilty for not being enough. We think our children are listless and bored, and it must be our fault.

So, how about if, for just a while, we concentrate on the being and not the doing, for both ourselves and for our children. Don’t ask, ‘What are we all doing?’, ask, ‘How are we all?’. This doesn’t mean doing nothing. There may well be lots of structures and activities that are working well for your family. But make sure that the need to do is not creating stress and resistance. There’s no formula here, so just be intuitive and use anxiety levels as your barometer. Focusing on your own wellbeing is absolutely essential. Think about the things that might help you feel more grounded and what you could shift in your day to help you.

Then think about the space you’re in, and how you can help encourage an environment in which people feel connected and trusted. An environment in which you can all thrive and in which, the doing will naturally arise. Snuggle with a film, put the radio on and do some baking, play a video game with one of your children, or let them play while you read a book. Resist the urge to fill time. Then start to tune in to all the little moments that come from being connected. A spontaneous hug, a shared joke, a little piece of wisdom that surprises you. Enjoy all the things that naturally happen in this space.

You may well find that your own resistance is the hardest to overcome. Bring down expectations and demands. And when tension arises, as it inevitably does, remind yourself you’re doing a great job, and take a deep breath. There’s nothing to solve right now, and nothing to fix. Just keep holding that safe space and allow yourself to become part of it.

I’ve had to leave this post a number of times, as C has been feeling out of sorts. She has been telling me that she is ‘annoyed, and doesn’t know what to do’. My initial reaction was to think about what she could do. So, whilst I attempted to soldier on with my writing, I set up her next to me with her drawing things and a snack. That was harmonious for a little while, but not too long. Then I tried some soothing music and dug out some paper and a simple origami video for her. Nope. I then brought in some of her favourite books. With each effort, I thought I had sorted it and could get on with my doing. And every time she resisted, I felt a little tension arise in my body with the realisation that I still can’t just do what I need to do.

But actually, I know that C isn’t bored. I know from our conversations that she is worried about both her Grandmas, she is missing all the usual little outings we do, and she is devastated that we won’t be able to bring our cats over from Spain for the foreseeable future. There’s a lot of worry in that little head right now.

And, if I publish this post a few hours later, it won’t really matter. I close my computer and put it away. I resist feeling frustrated and I trust instead that everything will work itself out. We lie down on her bed and I rub her back. I feel her body relax. She moves and causes me to nearly fall off the bed. And she starts to laugh and laugh, so much that tears are rolling down her cheeks. A few minutes later, we are sitting quietly side by side on her bed. She is grooming her toy dog with a brush and talking to him softly, and I am back with this post. We’re happy and well and that’s enough.

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