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Parenting Is Exhausting, But This One Change Makes All the Difference

Photograph by Twenty20

Sometimes I complain about staying home with my kid. Sometimes I complain about playing with him. Sometimes I feel so exhausted that I just want to check out. Sometimes I do. Truthfully, sometimes I feel like I have to.

My son is 2. And over the course of the past year, I have noticed something remarkably true. Every time I want to check out and I actively rebel against the urge, I end on the upswing. And each time, it shocks me.

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There are various levels in which we can do most things. For instance, when I’m cleaning, I can do a real light swipe of surfaces. Technically, I’m cleaning. I’m also cleaning when I scrub every surface in our home while sobbing over how disgusting we are. I can clean at Level One, Level Two or Level Three.

It's just like parenting.

I feel different—both hypothetically and physically—when I get on the floor with my child. When I dismount the toilet seat and sit next to the bathtub instead. When instead of just letting him splash me in the face, I reach in and splash him. I wet my hands. I soak my clothes. And I end up smiling from ear to ear.

This same scene plays itself out in other rooms, in other realms. At the park when instead of watching him go down the slide, I climb up behind him and go down with him on my lap. In the living room when instead of watching him color, I grab a blue crayon and move it back and forth. I don’t even have to be coloring for real. I simply have to be in there. I have to move from the spectator to the one engaged.

Parenthood is like a monumental and all-consuming change. Even while celebrating your independence, you’re often caught up in the thought of their existence.

This is not a new concept, the concept of leaning in. We’re told to—if we can—lean into everything. If you’re going to go to work, go with a good attitude. Talk to your coworkers. Ask them to lunch. If you’re going to take a walk, wave at people while you're walking. Eat without the TV on and really taste your food. Be inside whatever it is you’re doing. Lean in. Lean into Level Three.

I get why it’s hard with parenthood. Parenthood is like a monumental and all-consuming change. One day, you can sit on the couch like a zombie for six hours straight and no one will care or be worse off for it. Then, you procreate and suddenly six minutes of not paying attention could hurt your kid’s feelings, seriously endanger them and/or completely deplete your house’s resale value (I have never met a toddler who doesn’t love Sharpies with every ounce of their valor.)

We don’t get "off" time unless we’re out of town or they’re asleep. And then being away from them is a stress of a different kind. Who is taking care of them? Are they doing a good enough job? Even while celebrating your independence, you’re often caught up in the thought of their existence.

When they’re asleep in your own home, and you’re hanging in the living room? Still. You are still parenting. You are still trying to be good enough, present enough, parent enough. Did I hear them just cough? Was that the sound of sheets ruffling? Was today a good day for them? Did I feed them well enough and provide enough stimulation? No matter what they—or you—are doing, you are NEVER OFF. I can walk away from a room he’s in for 10 minutes, and no matter how badly I want to be in that other room, my muscles still twitch to go back to the room he is in.

It’s hard.

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But since when did "off" indicate anything great was happening? When the lights are off, you can’t see. When the sound is off, you can’t hear a thing. Being off is like being on the outskirts of life. So when I am knee-deep in the midst of life with my son, I try to remember this. Mere inches dictate my experience (and enjoyment) of motherhood. When I get to Level Three, I am engaged in such a beautiful and joyous way.

I work diligently to remember this. Even when, especially when, I am tired.

Levels are not just for video games. We are operating on levels all day long, in a million ways, in all of our doings. Next time you’re on Level One with your kid, try for a moment to jump up a level. Go to the next level or the next two. You will not regret it.

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