For years, I struggled with living in the present moment. I spent most of my teens and 20s angling toward The Next Thing — the admission letter, the internship, the serious boyfriend, the promotion, the engagement, the better apartment, the new job, the wedding, the first house, babies! It was hard not to: a lot happens in your 20s, and there are delicate timetables (leases! graduations! windows for promotion eligibility! bonuses! fertility!) and complicated career decisions and the daunting logistics of coordinating your aspirations and preferences with those of your loved ones. And I think ambition is a good thing, especially when you have the energy and general lack of responsibility I enjoyed in my 20s. That is to say: I can’t blame myself for flirting with the future as I moved through that decade.
Things have settled down in the last few years, as I slope towards 40. I feel as though I am where I am meant to be. I often talk about separating the “years that ask” from “the years that answer,” and though the past year has been one of incredible difficulty, isolation, and uncertainty (my experience paling in intensity company to that of countless many other Americans), I have to say that my mid-30s have in general felt like a big answer. Or, if not an answer articulate, the kind of reassurance you feel when a professor glances your way after you’ve been holding your hand in the air for five or six minutes and nods at you, acknowledging that you’ve been seen, you will be heard, and you are not far from response. You then sit, perhaps rehearsing your inquiry, but less fearful that your concerns will float out into the ether, unseen and illegible.
I think because I have enjoyed a greater sense of stability in the past few years, I have had the emotional space to intentionally focus on ways to feel more present and less harried. A few techniques that have provided acute relief:
+Understanding chores and exercise as a part of the architecture of my day — not “things that get in the way of living life,” but part and parcel of life itself. My sister and I have a shared shorthand for our former fluster as we’d positively barrel through errands and domestic drudgeries: we called it “slamming drawers and cabinets.” (“What were you up to today?” “Ugh, just slamming drawers and cabinets.”) Now I understand that things like ironing, baking a birthday cake, sorting the children’s clothing for donation, picking up prescriptions, scheduling appointments, etc., are actual tasks! That must be calendared! And treated like the time-consuming activities that they are! This reconceptualization has helped me move through my day with more control and — can I say it? — leisure. I now aim to make these admin tasks as pleasant as I can, whether folding laundry while watching a TV show, ironing while listening to an audiobook, or doing the dishes while enjoying a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
+Related to the above, casting my domestic responsibilities as equal entrants on my daily to-do lists. That is to say, nestled right alongside a call with a non-profit I have been working with, answering the comments on my blog, and editing that think piece I’ve been working on, I will also include ticks for: order groceries, check to make sure Tilly’s vaccines are up to date, follow up with other class mom on Valentine’s Day activity, and drop return at UPS. In aggregate, these trivial tasks take up a lot of time and consume a considerable amount of space in my daily mental load. It has been helpful to organize these items on my to do list not only because it makes me feel more productive and ensures that nothing will fall through the cracks — but because it is a visual reminder that I am owning a lot of things, and that those tiny things matter. Accounting for them helps me be more realistic about what I can do in a given day, which in turn affords me a sense of control and accomplishment.
+Banning my phone from bed. This was a difficult habit to break, but the benefits were immediate: I started falling asleep so much faster and sleeping so much more soundly. I think this is partly because I am no longer over-stimulating myself just before bed but the habit has afforded the added benefit of setting an invisible boundary: “The day is over; now it is time to sleep.” The only thing to do once I climb into bed is sleep. It makes my bedtime rituals feel much quieter, more intentional, stripped of distraction. Cannot recommend this enough.
+Creating a fifteen-minute buffer period between the end of work and the start of my evening home and parenting duties.
+Dedicating time to Mr. Magpie after the children are down. It starts in the kitchen, just after I’ve cleared the melee of dishes, toys, flung clothing, and stray noodles from our apartment and dipped outside into the brisk winter air to take Tilly on a walk. I then hurry down the long butler’s pantry extension of our L-shaped kitchen and stand propped against the counter, watching Mr. Magpie cook, drinking a glass of wine, unwinding, chatting or not chatting about the day, tutting as Mr. Magpie criticizes a recipe or extols the virtues of bronze-cut pasta, fetching plates or clearing the counter as his forever sous-chef. We almost always listen to music — The Toots and the Maytals providing considerable release one recent evening — and then we sit down to eat, going over our STPs (Shoop Talking Points — all of the items we must discuss on a given day, from upcoming doctor’s appointments to what gift to send for a nephew’s birthday to our meal plan for the week and even bigger ticket items pertaining to our professions or family members or parenting technique) and then, usually, watching a show. We are disciplined about keeping our phones out of reach during this portion of the night, and it feels like a one or two-hour vacation.
Looking back on this list, I realize how many of these are simply formalizations, or ritualizations, of common sense instincts, all of them together orchestrated to help me lead a more measured, less frenetic quotidian life in which every segment of the day can be — if not enjoyed, then at least well-managed. Somehow building the logistical shell around, for example, “the 15 minute end-of-work buffer” by extending our caregiver’s hours, and organizing high priority concerns into a digital list of “talking points,” and categorically banning my phone from bed have helped me achieve a better pace, a better “mouthfeel,” as I move through my day. And it is all, I now realize, about boundary-setting and line drawing.
One area I need to work on is being present and putting my phone out of reach when with the children. I often find success in this area when I have planned activities for them that I can lead and participate in. I find it far more difficult during hour 23098 of the weekend, when we are all tired and I don’t know that I have it in me to persist through the next hour of free play, or just after I’ve completed the morning shift. Mr. Magpie and I trade off the morning shift; when I’m on deck, this entails emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the kitchen, scrubbing the cooktop, replenishing the ice, making breakfast, changing morning diaper, administering bottle, feeding children, cleaning up after breakfast, taking temperatures and filling out health check for school, packing lunch, brushing children’s teeth and hair, and dressing the children. By the time I’ve completed all of those tasks (in about a 1.5 hour window), I just want to sit, quietly, with my phone for a spell, but this is often when my children are at their most energetic! If it’s a school day, Hill wants to run around the apartment, or have me read him books, or pull out and empty every puzzle on the shelf, one by one. And I am always keenly aware that this little window — after Emory leaves and before our caregiver arrives — presents a special sliver of one-on-one time with my boy. But it is hard to resist the desire to just sit and glaze over, checking my phone, or immediately lunge into the process of getting myself ready for the day, or pitter-patter around the apartment taking care of other things. The same goes for weekend afternoons, when I am usually feeling depleted from my exertions in activities and crafts and excursions outdoors. I feel a voice inside tell me: “Come on, Jen, get down on that floor and play with those Maileg mice! Read that stack of books with Emory! Pull out the crayons! Or, at least, just sit in quiet, watching and observing. You do not need to check your phone. Be present!” It is a challenge.
Any advice in this category, friends?
What helps you stay in the present moment?
+Another memory from my 20s: a serious case of imposter syndrome.
+The quality of clothing from this brand is generally unimpressive, but this top is super cute and this cardigan reminds me of the Sandro ones we were all obsessed with earlier this season.
+Adorable Pam Munson bag on sale for almost 40% off. I loved when she used this pastel madras liner for her bags!
+One of my favorite posts I wrote last year, on legacy and lineage.
+Fun vintage cameo earrings for under $20 if you’re looking for a more understated approach to my favorite Nicola Bathies!
+Such pretty melamine plates for your outdoor dining setup this spring!
+This bold La Double J one-piece (on serious sale)!
+Love this striped, longline cardigan (under $100).
+Just restocked our art supply cabinet with fresh watercolors, watercolor paper, and gel crayons (as of the time of writing this, these are 50% off the set of 24 — we LOVE this brand and these crayons in particular, which I find are particularly good for little ones as they positively glide over paper).
+Everything in Mi Golondrina’s Valentine’s Day Collection is beyond. I’m dying over this dress but thinking it would be too long on me and it’s always tricky tailoring a dress with a tier like that along the bottom. But this gingham top…! Ahhh!
+Still some time to score Valentine’s Day finds for your loved ones here.
+Meanwhile, if you can believe it, most sizes of this St. Patrick’s Day clover pajama set are already sold out!
+Some idle musings brought about by a piece of classic music.
+Gosh I love this dress!
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14 thoughts on “The Present Project.”
So much food for thought in this post Jen, but the following stood out in particular: “the daunting logistics of coordinating your aspirations and preferences with those of your loved ones.” I would love to read a more in-depth post on this alone if you’d be open to sharing your experience. For me, this has involved making my own choices even when they’ve been different from those my well-intentioned loved ones would like me to make. This has not been easy to navigate as someone who struggles in the boundary department, but I am in the process of developing better boundaries and so excited for the mental ease that setting those boundaries will bring.
As for wanting a serious relationship, engagement and marriage, a curious development in my own life has been realizing that I no longer feel that I NEED those things. I would, of course, still like them. I have been in a serious relationship for several years and eagerly anticipate getting engaged later this year, and coming to this realization before that phase of life has brought about a feeling that I don’t quite have words for yet. I would liken it to the joy I feel when I first glimpse the ocean on vacation…completely happy and overwhelmingly at peace exactly where I am because I know that I’m going to be able to relax for the next however many days and just enjoy myself as I slowly move through the days. I’m excited for all of the things that will come next, and even more excited that I won’t be rushing through them! Thank you for this post, which I will be mulling over for the next few days.
Yay! I so know that feeling of peace/calm that you’re referring to. Almost like pieces clicking together in the most satisfying way. An early congratulations to you!
I completely understand, too, how hard it is to feel as if you are going against the grain / against the wishes or preferences of loved ones when pursuing career decisions. One of the more draining and difficult parts of starting my business was explaining to many skeptical friends that I was leaving a substantive, high-level leadership role to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions in what must have looked like a totally random/farflung field (HR/people ops tech). I still flinch thinking through some of those interactions. It felt like I was letting people down, or not performing the way I should have been. I was fortunate to have had my husband and father as passionate supporters of the decision — that’s what made it much easier. Having champions that I loved and trusted. If I hadn’t had them, I really don’t know if I could have done it!
I’m always hungry for your tips! These seem like really wise practices – and I’m so glad you talked about slowing down to be present with your partner as well as your children. That seems crucial these days! My husband and I have started doing Saturday dates that involve getting food and eating it outside in the freezing cold while my mom watches our kids while they nap – who knew that just getting to drive somewhere together alone would mean so much!
A couple of things I’ve been thinking about in terms of being present and playing – there’s the concept of “the good enough mother” – I think it’s really important for our kids not to be raised by superhuman perfect mothers, who are always “on” and always composed. It sets too high a bar. Instead, I’m giving myself grace when I lose my temper or I’m too “played out” – but then taking time to repair and check in and grow closer through having a conflict and surviving it. I want my kids to see “good fighting” and the ways we can get angry or feel bored and that all feelings are allowed. It’s a work in progress.
I’ve also heard that writing things down can slow time – and you are doing that! Look at this tremendous record you’ve built.
Can’t wait to keep reading!
Hi Emily! Thank you so much for this supportive (grace-filled!) note. That’s an interesting point, THAT it can be healthy to show children the full spectrum of emotions, that it’s OK to feel sometimes frustrated, or tired, or bored! I do feel like I need to always lead by example and so I am loathe to show or share those (very real) emotions. Such a thought-provoking note!
Also — ahhh! — I love the image of you and your man enjoying a freezing al fresco picnic. We will take what we can get and make lemonade out of lemons!!
I unexpectedly received an Apple Watch as a Christmas gift last month, and it’s been a huge help to me in setting aside my phone when I’m playing with my kids. I was a big skeptic about it, but it’s made me much more intentional with my screen time.
This year I’ve made a point, as well, to put daily, mundane chores and tasks on my planner. It has helped me feel more accomplished (ha!) and also serves as a bit of a record of the day.
Oh that’s so great!! I can imagine that would be a helpful mnemonic/tool for weaning off the screen. And AGREE on the ancillary benefit of a planner as a record of the day!
Oh wow–this really spoke to me, Jen. Being in the era of “The Next Thing” feels to me like two sides of a coin: it’s exciting to feel like I’m on the cusp of so much possibility, and that I’m capable of making things happen for myself. On the flip side, it often feels like I’m on a hamster wheel where there’s hardly any savoring of an achievement or milestone before I’m thinking of what’s next.
One of my personal buzzwords for this new year has been “duality”, which I think applies to navigating these sentiments and staying present. I tell myself it’s ok to want things down the line and to work hard now to set myself up for achieving those things. At the same time, I’m working on remembering that this is a unique season of life that I can and should enjoy at face value, especially since I won’t always have the same kind of freedom and room to figure things out that I do at this stage.
It’s a tough balance to strike (Am I doing enough?! But also, am I slowing down to enjoy it enough?!), but ultimately, I’m trying to treat it like a daily mental practice that will get stronger over time. I won’t always get it right, but I think by acknowledging (and making peace with!) the opposing tensions I’m better able to set myself up to make the conscious choice to stay present. I so appreciated reading your perspective as someone who has been there, done that. Thank you!
Hi Hayden – This is so astute and well-considered. It reminds me in a way of the post earlier this week about holding two opposing thoughts in each of your hands, acknowledging that they co-exist, and working to the best of your abilities to balance them. In this case: “I SHOULD be looking toward the future and putting myself on the right path to get to those things!” and, in the other, “I SHOULD ALSO slow down and enjoy what I have right now.” It’s OK to want both! I wish I’d had this self-awareness in my 20s! I can tell you from this side of 35 that you are doing great.
Such great advice/wisdom! Love your comment about boundary setting, that’s really what it seems to boil down to. Need to work on that!
I do struggle with “the next thing”, but have felt the pandemic ease this feeling a bit with a lot of things being on hold. I also keep telling myself “you don’t get a trophy”, and that helps put things in perspective when I’m feeling edgy; i.e., “You don’t get a trophy for having/doing x by x age”.
Yes, totally!! So helpful to sort of step out of my situation and ask, “and why am I rushing to do x? for who/what?” Thanks for chiming in!! xx
Scheduling time for tasks has been so helpful in my personal and professional life. Knowing that laundry will be done by 10 AM or I will review a contract at 3 PM frees up precious mental space for me! I find myself so more relaxed when I have dedicated time to get tasks done. Covid has caused many shifts to our family’s day-to-day, but having more time to get tasks done has been beneficial, especially with stress levels elevated for nearly a year now.
Do you keep your phone in another room? What helped break your phone in bed habit?
Love the idea of scheduling tasks — this is next level! May need to borrow this myself.
On the phone – I keep it at my bedside but will.not.let.myself.touch.it. Somehow having a very clear boundary (once in bed, no phone!) makes it easy to remember. It now feels VERY weird if ever I have to use my phone for something in bed (i.e., someone calls / there is an emergency middle-of-the-night edit to a blog post / etc). I also have my phone configured so that it is automatically in DND mode at 9:30 p.m., which is usually when I’m getting ready for bed!
This has been on my mind lately as well. I’m not proud to admit I actually Googled “how to slow down time” the other day. Ha! I did learn, however, that mindfulness and staying connected to the present moment is likely the best effort we can give to mitigate the feeling that time is whooshing by. A daily quest for sure! Sometimes I can’t believe that I am living the life that I am. The toddler that I have imagined in my head for years is actually real, running around my living room! I just don’t want it to pass me by.
Thank you for the reminder to see chores as part of the architecture of your day. That has always been one of my favorite posts of yours!
That’s exactly right — “a daily quest”! Some days I’m better at all of this than others. I so hear you on not wanting these years to “pass me by.” It’s always a delicate tightrope walk for me between wanting to soak them up and also letting myself acknowledge that this age is very demanding and exhausting and that it’s OK to want breaks.
So glad the architecture of the day concept has been helpful! It was a major breakthrough for me!!