From Chicken Soup for the Working Mom's Soul

Are You Listening?

One recent morning, a morning like any other, I was involved in my usual assortment of tasks. I was preparing breakfast, getting the kids ready for school, helping my daughter finish some neglected homework, cleaning the kitchen, and all the while itching to get to the pile of emails and voice mails waiting for me in my office. I added one more task when I began reading a magazine article. The headline shouted: SOME ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!

While my daughter’s sweet little voice prattled on about something I never quite heard, I proceeded to read the article. I read in my usual distracted fashion. I scanned a paragraph, realized I hadn’t comprehended the words, then reread it. Scanned another paragraph, realized I hadn’t comprehended it, reread it. Finally, it occurred to me what I was reading. It was an article about our distracted society. Carefully packing my car keys in my son’s lunchbox, I read on.

Apparently, there was a gathering of technology types who talked about the advances in communications and business and what they mean for society. An executive stood to speak, and she identified an epidemic she called “continuous partial attention.” As her audience ignored her to gaze into their laptops and check their phones for text messages, she elaborated.

She said that in today’s world we are continually plugged in. Our mobile electronic devices keep us connected to all of our many responsibilities, no matter where we are. We live in perpetual contact with everyone and everything. We commend ourselves for our availability to those who might need us at any given moment, using tools always at our fingertips. Well, it’s true! And don’t you love it?

Thirteen years ago, when my husband and I decided to start a family, I knew that my high-pressure radio sales job would no longer suit my lifestyle. So during my seventh month of pregnancy with my first child, I put out the proverbial shingle and became a media-buying consultant. I brought with me some of the clients and contacts from my previous job, and I hit the ground running.

I knew that I had technology to thank for my ability to work from home. With faxes, voice mail, and the newly emerging Internet, work no longer needed to be done in “real time.” I could communicate with clients and suppliers when it was most convenient for me. I could earn a good income for work I found enjoyable, while still being an available and attentive mother to my children. What a wonderful new world!

But thirteen years later as I stood reading this magazine, I realized that something had shifted. The article identified some alarming changes brought on by the new technologies. The proliferation of communication tools, such as cell phones, e-mail, and PDAs, has created a world in which our clients, friends, and acquaintances can contact us at any time or place. They can call us in our cars from their cars. They can send us texts asking us to take action. They can juggle two tasks at once by sending us an e-mail while talking to someone else on the telephone.

The balance has tipped. The fact that we now can be available wherever we are has evolved into the expectation that we should be available wherever we are. The pace of life has accelerated dramatically. And the result is that we’re becoming more removed from the moment we’re engaged in because we leave ourselves open to spontaneous interruptions that suddenly demand our focus. The technology that once expanded our time is now consuming it, leaving us constantly feeling like there’s something else we’re supposed to be doing.

Snapping back to the present, I realized that standing in my kitchen I wasn’t particularly available to anyone! Noticing that my daughter had walked away from my lack of conversation, I suddenly wondered what it was she’d been trying to tell me. And how urgent were those e-mails in the other room at 7:30 in the morning when my kids were right there asking for just five more minutes of my attention? And what on earth was I doing reading a magazine article when the real task at hand was to get the children ready for school?

Well, it was one of life’s little epiphanies. It reminded me of a lesson I keep relearning: the most worthy goal is to strive to be present and grounded in a tangible place and time. I had structured my life to be available to my clients when they needed me, but more important, to my children when they needed me. And that moment was now. The magazine and the e-mails and the voice mails and the cleaning could wait.

Contemporary life offers so many opportunities and choices for women, and each of us is figuring it out as we go along. I’ve discovered that while I have multiple responsibilities, each can be accomplished in its own time. I find it useful to block out sections of time for each of the things that matter, temporarily setting aside the rest. There is something to be said for compartmentalizing, especially when our children are involved.

True, it does take a lot of practice to focus on being in the moment, but it makes life so much more meaningful. Distractions are everywhere, but our lives are now! No matter how much work we have to do—with careers, parenting, home maintenance, church, and civic involvement— if we put our whole minds and bodies into performing each task with intention, we can feel less burdened and more rewarded.

It is only when we pay attention to life as we’re living it that the true richness of all we have can truly be appreciated. So let’s never forget to seize the moment!

Jennifer L. White

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