Why can’t I focus?
I write this in my pandemic journal, because I read journaling is a gift during this time and because “you’ll want to tell your grandkids about the 2020 pandemic” and because I already keep a journal.
Focus? The situation at hand requires me to “work” from home with my preschooler underfoot. Regular interruptions — to “go potty with Mommy,” to “get a snack with Mommy,” to pop in on yet another Skype meeting — stilt my productivity. I shift one production schedule back no less than three times. It takes twice as long to edit an article.
Seems like a cruel joke that I picked “pay attention” as my 2020 intention. Now I’ve forgotten the question. Oh yes. I write:
Why can’t I focus?
A: Your son keeps interrupting your workday.
A: Your work keeps interrupting your parenting.
Jay and I split up parenting shifts. When I’m with Jack during the workday, I find myself preoccupied by the tasks awaiting me in my inbox.
Lately caring for him feels like tossing a stick of dynamite back and forth, neither of us wanting to get stuck with an explosion. We know this is hard for him, too, and we’re doing our best. But it’s not enough — we can’t replace his friends or teachers or grandparents.
Uneager to dissect my failings, I set down my pen.
While unloading the dishwasher that evening I’d confessed to my husband, “I just feel so guilty all the time.”
“Why?” he asked, collecting a stack of dishes. I tallied it up in my head: mom guilt, work guilt, too much screen time guilt, wife guilt, guilt that our home looks like the cross between a child’s birthday party gone awry and a war zone, guilt that we are safe while others suffer.
For years I’d measured my worth as a Highly Effective Woman, meeting deadlines, achieving goals, caring for others, clearing clutter. She didn’t seem to live here anymore.
“Just… everything,” I sighed, holding up a grit-flecked glass that would need hand-washing. “Dishwasher didn’t do its job again.”
Jack’s at the dinner table finishing a slice of peanut butter and jelly toast while FaceTiming with my mother. My phone leans against a mega-sized jar of peanut butter reflecting just his face in the frame with his grandma’s, as if they’re chatting at our table. His eyes dance as he tells her about the birdhouse he and Daddy placed in our tree. I watch him smile wide; I grin too. Conversation slows.
“Okay, now, ask her how her day was,” I prod, gently touching his shoulder.
“Grandma, how was your day?” he says. I mouth, “Good boy!”
She begins to answer, but Jack’s already launching into another story.
“Honey,” I interject, tapping his shoulder again, “That’s all fine and good, but you need to listen. It’s Grandma’s turn to talk.” I catch myself sounding like Mama Bear from Jack’s beloved Berenstain Bears books. My son keeps talking, oblivious or ignoring me, and I repeat myself.
“Honey, you need to listen.”
My own words startle me. What is my attention — or lack thereof — trying to tell me?
Days later, a colleague shares an article on productivity whose point seems so obvious I don’t know how I missed or dismissed it. It triggers a memory from last summer.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friend Seth told me over drinks at a work conference. His insight made me cringe.
“No, I don’t think so,” I answered, swirling my pinot grigio.
Seth is one of my oldest friends. We’ve studied Kierkegaard together, he’s my husband’s fraternity brother and we see each other occasionally for work and social events. He knows me. “Yeah, you definitely are,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
I imagine telling him today that I’m failing. That my back is breaking under the weight of my pride and high expectations. Deep down I worry I never was a Highly Effective Woman — this proves it. I have no color-coded schedule, no sourdough starter, no stomach for offering at-home haircuts. I want to pay attention but most days, I’m a distracted mother. Most days, I barely cobble words together.
At this, Seth would just shake his head.
The next time I crack open my journal, I return to the previous entry, drawing wisdom from the article:
Why can’t I focus?
A: You are in the middle of a pandemic.
“Mommy, it’s rainy again,” Jack sighs, staring out our droplet-streaked front window.
I join him and zero in on puddles pooling across the pavement. I’ve taken the day off work to spend with Jack and I don’t want to waste it indoors. I ask, “Wanna go puddle jumping?”
“Yay! Yay! Yay!”
I help Jack into his green froggy rain boots, throw on sneakers and grab our light jackets. We venture out our red side door and crack open the garden gate. Sidewalks — well-trafficked on fairer days — stand empty.
Rainwater-drenched grass overwhelms my nose. My son releases his grip on my hand and barrels straight for a puddle. A neighbor with a black Portuguese water dog waves hello before crossing to the opposite sidewalk.
The pearly clouds overhead temporarily dry up as we scour the neighborhood for the perfect puddle. This one by the street is too dangerous. This one on the sidewalk is too shallow. We keep going.
All the while, I catalogue beauty: Verdant green grass juxtaposed against crumbling city asphalt. Trees shifting from flowered to leaved. Violets sprinkled through common patches of grass. The tiniest drizzle of rain kisses my face, igniting my senses.
I’ll record this in my journal, I think.
Now the rain’s picking up again and I’m tugging Jack toward home and he’s tugging me the opposite direction, unwilling to end the search. In the middle of the alley, I stop.
“Jack, I think I’ve found it!”
He turns his head. “What Mommy?”
“Your perfect puddle,” I point. “Look!”
We rocket toward the puddle. SPLASH! Jack jumps in and stamps his feet while I stand back to observe, scanning the alley for cars.
Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. Black mud cakes the outside of his frog boots.
Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. The rain grows heavier. His cheeks turn upward in delight.
Mine do too. I keep watching: I want to imprint this moment to memory.
“It’s time to go buddy,” I finally say. “Why don’t you take one more splash in the puddle?”
Raindrops slice through the air. Holding hands, my son and I jog the full quarter-block to our house, never stopping until we reach the finish, hearts hammering in our chests.
I throw back the gate, unlock the red side door, usher Jack inside and pause, suspended between the glow and warmth of home and the wonder of a spring storm. Between dry and wet. Safe and wild. Failing and flying. Proving my worth and simply trusting it. Before every obligation comes tumbling back, I stay still, listening to the raindrops.