In the past week two friends have asked me, "how do I keep my one year old happy and entertained all day every day at home?" If you don't speak Mom, this question can be re-worded as a simple statement: "HELP. I am simultaneously bored, lonely and overwhelmed every day."
My first thought was, "Oh friend. Bring over a bottle of wine and let's talk... because you are in the thick of it." I had to take a minute to put myself in their shoes. It seems like an eternity ago I spent a summer with a one year old. At the time I was pregnant with my daughter. I wrote these words toward the end of that hard season. It was long and lonely, and something about the unrelenting heat in Georgia and the crazy logistics involved in simply leaving the house with a kid that age makes it seem even longer. I laugh now when I read the text exchanges that used to happen between 5pm and 7pm with my long-working husband, but back then I assure you it was not funny
- Being PRODUCTIVE
- Creatively PLAYING
- CONNECTING with Community
- Recharging with QUIET
When I was a new mom I felt guilty about being productive around the home while my baby was awake. I thought I needed to be engaging this little human and filling his world with wonder at all times. We would play blocks (time spent: 45 seconds) zoom cars on the carpet (2 minutes) take a walk outside (12 minutes) come in and read books (7 minutes) over and over again. I was exhausted AND bored trying to fill up hour-long blocks of time with minutes' worth of activities. And the whole time I was playing halfheartedly because I knew the only time I would have to myself that day (nap time) would be spent cleaning up the mess we were having "so much fun!" making.
I bet you could look up from your screen and see 15 different ways you could get productive around your home right now. In the face of so many options, I write down two or three important things that need doing (almost always related to food, clothing or shelter) and make those my priority for the day. I literally write down, "Make Dinner" on my list EVERY DAY. If I didn't, I would look up at 5:30pm and wonder who the crap was going to bring us food that night.
I struggled for a long time to figure out what it looked like to take care of my house and not banish my child from the premises (I'm definitely the crazy cleaning mom) until I realized this game-changing truth: creative play and being productive can overlap. Turning the empty laundry basket upside down (now it's a climbing apparatus!) while you fold laundry is play. Putting your toddler in his high chair with straws and a colander while you wash dishes or prep dinner is play. You can even put your little one in the bath to play/self-clean while you clean the rest of the bathroom. That's like, 3 birds with one stone I think. All of these things fill their little minds with new experiences, stimulate their senses and don't require you to sit criss-cross-applesauce on the carpet across from them. No it's not as simple as doing these things while they are napping, but it will enable you to redeem that precious afternoon nap for some sacred quiet time of your own.
I found that once I started integrating my son into the things I needed to get done around the house, I was more willing to sit down and devote my attention to 10-15 minutes of fully engaged play time with him. My favorite parenting moments often happen during this one-on-one play time. I think true PLAY is a far cry from the highly-stuctured, adult-manufactured experiences modern moms often feel pressured to create for our tots. True play is the giggle you share when you're blowing bubbles in the driveway. It's the way your daughter mimics your animal sounds while you read a picture book. It's the pure joy you revel in together when they discover how loud their own clapping is. I could preach a sermon on the fuss surrounding entertaining toddlers these days.
They don't need an elaborate set up and expensive pre-paid activities. They do not need Mommy & Me yoga classes, story time at the library or painting in the park meet-ups. Those are great once your kid is over the age of two, and probably even better if they are nearing age three or four. But before then? It is a lot of work. Now if you enjoy those things, go for it! Tour the zoo, visit the museum, join a play group. But if those things don't make your heart sing, DO NOT FEEL OBLIGATED TO DO THEM. There are better ways to meet your need to connect with the outside world (we'll talk about that later this week) and your little one doesn't need them. For real. They will be just as happy following you around the house playing with the empty oatmeal container. And you might be surprised at how much stress you save yourself if you're not trying to feed them, dress them, get a shower and dress yourself in order to run out the door for a 10am toddler-enrichment class.
So instead of taking them to story-time, sit down and read 5 books (or let's be real, the same book 5 times) before moving on to folding laundry. Try taking a walk around the block and be fully present, because you know you've already started the dishwasher and you have a plan for dinner when you get home. When you're not staring down a 10 hour day of simply trying to keep a little one entertained, I think you'll find some freedom to deeply enjoy the moments of play in between the other tasks that make up your day.