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If you’re a parent, you’re used to being interrupted. This
is probably why it takes approximately 45 minutes to pack lunches (Mom! Can I
have more milk?) for two small children when I do it in the morning, compared
to (Mom! Where’s my purple car?) when I prep meals the night before. It’s why my husband and I (MOMMMM! Where’s
my light saber?!?) rarely finish a conversation. Maybe it’s why a complete
cycle of laundry never seems to get finished.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would probably say so.
The author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that humans are happiest when we’re engaged in an
activity that’s completely absorbing. He calls it “flow.” It’s that feeling
when you’re running and you can feel your whole body working together, sleek
and synchronized. Or when you’re writing and the words are sliding in from
nowhere, from everywhere, and they fit together just right. Maybe yoga
or Sudoku or reading are activities that envelope you, funnel your
attention, and make you lose track of time.
With young children underfoot, it’s hard to even unload the dishwasher without fielding requests for
snacks or drinks, without being summoned to mop up a spill or break up a fight.
The other day, I was trying to pen a quick email to a colleague. My 3-year-old
daughter seemed to smell my need for focus. She interrupted me about five times
before I grumpily shut my laptop down, saving the task for another time. The
agitation I experience when being interrupted like this vies for the same level
of frustration I reach after a night of broken sleep, or PMS.
Amidst the frequent interruptions, concentration feels good. Challenge feels good. Being absorbed feels good.
interrupted while trying to focus is the opposite of flow.
It’s like having a boss who constantly burst into your
office. “Can I have some cereal?” he blurts. A few minutes later, he appears
donning a Darth Vader mask. “Whatcha doin?” he asks. After he leaves, you’re
just re-focusing on the spreadsheet you’re working on when he slides into your
doorway again. “I have to poop,” he announces.
This is life with young children.
There are hilarious moments, syrup-sweet snuggles and of
course, the omnipresent hum of love. It’s what I signed up for, and I wouldn’t
But oh, are there interruptions.
As my children get older, I do find pockets of flow with
them. Last weekend we went sledding together, and I let the thrill of
hurtling downhill wash over me. Sometimes it's doing puzzles with my daughter or constructing a
400-piece Lego set with my son. Amidst the frequent interruptions, concentration feels good. Challenge
feels good. Being absorbed feels good. I can see why Csikszentmihalyi believes
that flow is the secret to happiness.
But most of my flow moments these days happen away from the
kids. They happen while my kids are in school and I sit down at my laptop,
ready to see what words will make their way across the blank page, or when I make
it to yoga class and let everything go except my breath and my warm muscles, or when
I’m reading a book so good that I sink into the world of the story, leaving the
realities of my life blurred around the edges.
I’m learning to make space for flow, to help counteract all
the fractured, frustrating moments of early parenthood, to recharge, to feed
myself, to stay challenged. Our children find these moments organically—when
they burrow deep into their own imaginations, when they’re building a LEGO tower, when they’re learning something new. For most parents, especially moms, it
takes effort to find flow and to make the space for a happier self.