The Fashion Magpie Focus and the Fibers of Motherhood

Focus and the Fibers of Motherhood.

*Image via FFW featuring Loo Nascimento.

Back when I managed a team and was also occasionally in a position to “manage up,” I used to repeat the phrase: “Focus is your scarcest resource.” To my direct reports, this was a mildly gentler way of saying: “Eye on the ball” and discouraging meandering side pursuits and the kind of perfectionism that impedes progress. To my own boss, this was a means of requesting clear priorities, i.e., “We can do this, or we can do this — which matters most to us right now?” I leaned on this phrase so much that I included it in employee onboardings and quarterly reviews and pinned the letters FIYSR up in front of my desk.

I was reflecting recently on how this concept has both shaped and occasionally worked against my life outside the workplace. If I find myself with a pocket of unclaimed time, what do I fill it with? I am a master of checklists and so I will often slot in a quick to-do (“make an appointment,” “order shoes for micro,” “iron dress for tomorrow,” etc) when I find myself with, for example, twenty minutes before a call — not enough time to start writing, but not so little time it makes sense to just fritter it away on my phone, which can be distressingly easy to do. This is, of course, during stretches of time while the children are at school or in the care of our nanny, because when I am with them, those slices of unclaimed time are even skinnier and scarcer, and I must then face the dilemma of whether “getting something done” (laundry, dishes, dinner) outweighs “doing something meaningful with my children.”

Today I sit here and think: there are times and seasons and places for everything. Perhaps the urgency with which I conducted myself in the office was called for. I worked almost exclusively for small, nimble, under-funded start-ups working to solve substantive social problems. A clipped pace felt not only necessary but ethical. But perhaps there are other realms and times of life where we can live a bit more free-form and footloose. I keep thinking about a phrase one of my Magpies introduced to me a few months ago: “toxic productivity culture.” And I continue to have a nearly allergic reaction to the optimization talk in James Clear’s book. And so I posit: maybe I could stand to do a little less. Maybe it’s OK to get to those “to-dos” tomorrow. Maybe every minute doesn’t need to be accounted for. Maybe it is gratifying to tinker, or linger, or take the long way home. More importantly: maybe, too, some of my most meaningful work as a mother is not easy to capture in tick-list form: hugs, encouragement for mini’s persistent attempts at somersaulting, whispering nonsensical “Woody and Buzz stories” in the hush of my son’s room at night, identifying the small bird flying just outside our window as two pairs of curious eyes peer outward. None of those feel like progress, or focus, exactly, but my God — they are the stuff of parenting, and absolutely essential.

Then again —

Life with small children rarely feels “free-form and footloose” in the sense I want it to (i.e., chasing bubbles through the park or deciding to run out for milk shakes on a Tuesday), and we all know what happens when we push a “mom to-do” back and suddenly your child arrives at pajama day at school without pajamas and the inevitable mom guilt ensues. Oy. I often feel that there is little give in my day, as though my mornings, noons, and nights are wearing non-stretch denim. I’ve recently started scheduling “solo dates” with my children on my calendar, because otherwise, life will wash over us and weeks will have gone by without those trips to the ice cream shop and moments at the museum I’ve always imagined.

Then again —

The ice cream shop and moments at the museum are lovely, but I must not let those exclamation points stand in for the quiet, unremarked labors of love that fill my days and form the fibers of my motherhood. The trips are exciting but I am certain that it will be the feel of my arms during a midnight terror and the sound of my voice reading “Goodnight, Moon” that my children will remember when they think of me. Mini often tells me: “You smell like mama.” I know already the impressions I have made will have little to do with whether or not I bought her a scoop of mint chip.

I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m stuck somewhere between clinging to ruthless prioritization (born of habit, necessity, and the vague sense of “hygienic correctness”), kicking myself for being so disciplined, and not celebrating enough the trivial-but-not activities of motherhood. Because motherhood does not feel like focus to me. It feels like a blurring. Yes, it requires focus and intention, but so much of it is impossible to capture: it is the smoothing of hair, and the repeating of “you can do hard things,” and the application of bandaids and ointments, and the “wow!” you issue for the trillionth time when your boy yells, “Hey mama, look!” and he is clinging to the kitchen counter in an imitation of SpiderMan he has been performing every couple of minutes for the past week straight. It is whispers and kisses and concerned looks and time-outs and it all fades into the mist of day, and you find yourself flopping onto a couch and asking: What did I even accomplish today?

Maybe, just maybe — more than I think. Maybe I have done the hard work of motherhood and not even realized it because I tend to mistake “progress” for “folded laundry” and “a completed to-do list” rather than the hundred tiny and un-notable interactions of love that go into parenting every single day.

A good friend often tells me: “life happens between the drumbeats.” Am I missing things because I’m so hellbent on keeping those drum beats on tempo? Or am I focused on the wrong percussion entirely, in that, if I look at the music from the eyes of my children, they see the warm and consistent pattern of bedtime stories, breakfast plates with segmented fruit, prayer before dinner together at the table, shoes deposited neatly in the shoe bin–and what on earth deserves my focus besides the constancy of those utterances of love?

Post-Scripts.

+A small relinquishing.

+On self-care as a mother.

+How do you take care of yourself?

+How do you spend time alone?

+Vestiges.

+On the notion of downtime.

+Optimization fatigue.

Shopping Break.

+The pattern on this pillow!

+Another great crochet find. This one feels like something Twiggy would have worn in the 60s. (More gorgeous crochet pieces here.)

+Love the color of these leggings.

+SWOON.

+OMG, Mark Sikes’ Anthro collection! Love this patterned Parsons table! And how fun is this botanical lampshade?!

+Stocked up on this mineral spray sunscreen for the warm weather months. It is the best for the entire family (Mr. Magpie and I use it too). A lot of mineral sunscreens are difficult to blend in, but this one sprays on easily and has a nice liquid-y texture that makes it easy to apply on wriggling, impatient children. I use the little stick sunscreen for the children’s faces.

+Chic entryway table.

+Fun evening clutch.

+Adore this oversized eyelet blouse — would be cute as a coverup! ($60!)

+This personalized striped tee is SO cute for a little one. (More small business finds for children here.)

+A great outdoor storage solution for pool toys, yard toys, towels, etc.

+Perfect overnight bag for a baby or child.

+CHIC woven bucket bag.

+Bucket hats are back, baby — here is an affordable variation on the theme.

+Love this boucle trim jacket! Chanel vibes.

+This white dress is stunning.

15 Comments

  1. I really appreciate your timely words on this topic. I happened to pick up a children’s book off a shelf last weekend called “Someday is not a day of the week” and I found myself in tears at the bookstore. Then, later, almost angry at the author for her remarks on “always fitting in what’s most important” as the mom throws out her to-do list. Sometimes we gotta get things done!!

    I grew up in a household where laziness was unacceptable so I find it incredibly difficult to do things that are overtly productive. But then the idea of missing this time with my kids always trying to check things off the never-ending list is a heartbreaking thought. My four kids range from 12 to 2 and there are days I feel time is slipping away (especially when my oldest only has 6 years left at home) while simultaneously moving so slow.

    As adults we think it’s the trips and outings, but I remember my mom coming home from work and letting us lay out a blanket and eat snacks for dinner in front of a movie. When I mentioned it to her she was like oh gosh, those were the days I failed — I didn’t have dinner planned, I was exhausted after work and I just laid on the couch with you all. And as a child those nights meant everything. We have a saying in our house: “Do the little thing.” My husband and I will get carried away planning some all-day outing or extravagant birthday party that we know well will leave us tired/distracted/stressed and we need the reminder to do the “little thing” so we can be really present with our kids.

    1. *are not overtly productive

      Also, sorry for the long winded comment! Clearly it’s been top of mind lately 🙂

    2. Never apologize! I appreciate and welcome your thoughts and the time you spent sharing them with us. I absolutely LOVE your mantra: “Do the little thing.” It is SO true. Thanks for the reminder.

      xx

  2. I feel this so deeply as I am on maternity leave with my 12 week old and also have my toddler home with me nearly full time (save for a precious few hours/week of preschool 🙂 There is not a whole lot of productivity happening – working out has completely halted, my family’s meals aren’t planned out as they were pre-baby, my house is messier than I would like, I have a list of home projects a mile long. BUT, the gift of the second child is that I know this time will end, the fog will lift, we will sleep again. Holding on for dear life in the meantime 🙂 and finding a lot of solidarity in talking with other moms and hearing their experiences.

    1. Yes, so true on the second child! You know you will get through and find a rhythm eventually!!! Thinking of you in the meantime. xx

  3. I love everything about this post, Jen!! As John Lennon said in Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

  4. Whenever I find myself getting too laser-focused on bulldozing through the to-do list, I try to come back to the mantra “loosen your grip on life.” Just a good reminder to unclench a little and enjoy those smaller, quiet moments.

  5. This post will echo with me all day. Thank you! I am currently in “forced stillness” right now. I am on maternity leave with a 10 week old and it has been a paradigm shift for me to recognize that the actions of just sitting and nursing, sitting and rocking, this is productivity. This is not how I normally run. I am a doer. I am a planner, who marks things off a checklist. This is a new version of productivity for me and boy, it’s been hard to wrap one’s mind around this.

    1. Yes, Ana!! It truly is a mindset shift but you are absolutely doing the hard work of caring for a newborn and raising a child lovingly. You are making progress every day even though it feels like a total blur of tiny, repeated actions. I wish I’d dialed in on this concept sooner myself.

      Thinking of you! First few months are a big change with so much to process. I saw a quote recently: “I never realized the day I had my baby that I’d be meeting an entirely new person — myself.”

      xx

  6. Thank you for this beautiful musing. I can totally relate. I am great at scheduling things. Being productive. Getting things done. I exercise. Eat well. Get tasks completed and on time and you know what ? Some days I am just plain miserable. The mundane and order and self motivation is great but it is also debilitating. I just want to be free and happy and enjoy life and my family without a plan or schedule or a check list in my head. If you have any thoughts or ideas or tips how to do this please let me know. When I find stillness currently I few like I am crawling out of my skin with discomfort. Looking for the next thing to “do”

    1. I so relate, Diana. It can be hard to pause and really anchor yourself in the moment when you have been living a go-go-go, do-all-the-things lifestyle for a long time. It is hard to find a balance because there are a LOT of responsibilities but you also want to LIVE and be present. I have really tiny little mnemonics (if you can even call it that) that help me a bit, though I really struggle as well. One is that I try to focus on just doing one small thing to completion at a time and imagine myself isolating that one item with dividers and literally pushing everything else down a grocery store conveyer belt. I am ONLY going to focus on “ringing up” this particular task (empty the dishwasher, do the dishes, put my son to bed, etc) and not going to even think about the next thing yet. It can be helpful. I find myself slowing down and feeling more satisfied when I finish doing that one thing.

      Such a struggle though!

      xx

  7. Oh I so relate to all of these feelings. I often remind myself it can be both. It can be rushing around and to-dos and it can also be sitting on the floor playing with animals. It can feel like Groundhog Day for weeks on end and then we slide into a sweet spot where I wish I could freeze time.

    Shauna Niequist wrote one of my favorite books ever called “Present over Perfect.” Highly, highly recommend for beautiful, practical thoughts on this very topic.

    1. Danielle! This is so powerful: “I often remind myself it can be both.” Yes! I have been thinking a lot about the concept of “abundant mindset” (vs scarcity mindset) and permitting myself to feel multiple (often conflicting) things at once, and your words are the EXACT through-line.

      Thanks for writing in, and for the rec on Niequist!

      xx

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