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The True Genius of Mothers

The piece below originally appeared in this month’s Creative Times newsletter.

By Suzi Banks Baum

frost doodleI strive for One Thing Only. But I was not doing one thing only last week at my 18-year-old’s ski race. I’m not sure exactly what I was doing when I left the sidelines and accepted my son’s invitation to step onto the back of his skis for a “little ride” down the mountain. He’d just fallen during his ski race — not badly, but a fall that disqualified him. I wanted to be near him, just to make sure he was okay. That was one thing.

The other thing, the idea of a “little ride,” is what gave me a black eye.

That ride on the slick skis of a slalom racer landed me face-first in the icy snow on the downward slope of a small mountain in the frigid evening air, where I never would have ended up if I’d listened to my inner guidance and stayed home to make soup, but I did not heed that thought, no, there I was on the slopes to cheer. (Something of the crowd’s response told me that cheering is just not done at races. Maybe that is why my boy fell?)

Well. I yelled anyway. I believe in my kids knowing they are being seen.

But I did not yell when I fell.

8452838039_db8de2fe8b_mNo, headfirst in the snow, then sitting up with my cold hand pressed to my hot cheek, I silently beheld the egg blooming under my skin. Now, doing one simple thing, but holding about 10 other thoughts in my mind. “Is anything broken? Why did I listen to my kid? Argh, he makes me nuts! Oh, but he fell too. How is he? Hurt? Embarrassed? Do I need an EMT? What about dinner now? I hate dinner! Will I be able to teach this weekend?”

This morning, I read: “True genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously without losing your mind.” Charles Baudelaire wrote that. I’d say he was describing the genius of mother-thoughts entirely.

Some days, I ace thinking one thing at a time. Quiet prevails, the phone is ignored, the Wi-Fi is off, and the laundry dries peacefully on the line, no one needs me, no one is hollering my name from another part of the house, no meal awaits creation, no ski race demands my yelling, just me. Here. With you, the little black tendrils that I coax into letters that make these words that give form to my thoughts.

It is a simple as that.

8348911559_0c808ed79c_mWhen I have been multi-tasking too much, I doodle to settle myself. Then, with my concentration engaged, I can write.

One little black thread of a line leads to another.

And of those thoughts, those layers and layers of mother-thoughts, I work around them, never truly shedding them, but today, I can see they are part of my genius.

Merci, Monsieur Baudelaire. Now please pass the ice pack.


suzi_banks_baumGrowing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan made author, blogger, artist, and fulltime mom Suzi Banks Baum a lover of winter. Not afraid of the blank page, blank canvas, or wide expanse of snow, she makes patterns and trails, worlds and visions with her work. Suzi is about to launch an anthology of writings by women on mothering and creativity entitled An Anthology of Babes: Thirty-six Women Give Motherhood a Voice. The book will be sold at her March 1, 2013 event for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers called Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others. You can find Suzi at  Laundry Line Divine or at the 10X10on10 Arts Festival in Pittsfield, MA, this month or better yet, out ice-skating.

How to Do One Thing at a Time

The piece below originally appeared in this month’s Creative Times newsletter.

How to Do One Thing at a TimeIn our do-it-all-now culture, multitasking is considered a skill. Just look at a few help wanted ads online — most job descriptions call for candidates who are able to “multitask.”

But we know from research that multitasking is actually unnatural and inefficient. “Do two or more things simultaneously, and you’ll do none at full capacity.”

Multitasking is the antithesis of the concept of “flow” or “being in the zone,” as identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We want flow. It’s an essential part of creativity. Can you be creative when you’re unfocused and distracted? Sure. But the output probably won’t be as great — or feel as good — as what you get when you experience flow.

While it may be a lot to expect to enter flow on a daily basis, it’s not too much to develop work habits that support doing one thing at a time. I recently realized that my own habits had reached new depths of multitasking frenzy. The ugly truth looked something like this:

I’m in the middle of a client project and reflexively check my e-mail. A new action item comes in — something that will only take a couple of minutes to take care of. So I do that quick thing, and in the process remember that I’ve forgotten to order more paper towels. So I go to amazon to order paper towels and realize that I need to order a few other things too. I try to remember what those things are while going to the kitchen to make a fresh cup of tea. I unload the dishwasher while waiting for the kettle to boil. Back at my desk, finishing the amazon order, I get a text from one of my sons asking for a ride home from the train station later. I look at my schedule and realize that I have to make an ATM deposit, which I can do on the way to the train station. I take a few minutes to put together my deposit, which requires me to open my bookkeeping application and make a few entries. I glance at my to-do list and realize that I’m overdue for posting an update to a client’s facebook account. I go to facebook to make the update, but inevitably see my personal notifications at the same time. I get sucked into the feed. I click through to external pages. When a page is slow to load, I open another browser window and read news headlines or take a turn in Words With Friends. I realize it’s getting late and I really need to finish the client project I started with. I work on that for a a short burst before reflexively checking my e-mail again and the whole cycle repeats in some variation.

A pathetic spin on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Can you relate?

At the end of the day, I’d have the unpleasant feeling of having been busy for hours without having made much measurable progress — and without having done anything to the best of my ability. That doesn’t work well, and doesn’t feel good.

How had I gone so awry? How could doing just one thing at a time possibly be so complicated? I knew it had something to do with electronic life — and the real-time availability and demands that come with it. I realized that I needed some training wheels. More than training wheels, I needed some duct tape and a hammer. I had to start doing one thing at a time, doing each task until a) it was completed or b) for external or predetermined reasons I had to stop. Duh. But for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to stick to this simple framework.

Enter the time log, which has — literally — transformed my life. We know that dieters who write down everything they eat lose more weight than those who don’t. There’s something about having to fess up — even if just to yourself — that encourages you to stick with your intentions. Here’s what I started doing.

In the “notes” side of my two-page per day planner (although you could use anything — including a sheet of paper) I write down the time and what task I’m starting. When the moment comes that I need/want to do something else, I write down the time and what I’m about to do. I can do anything I want, but I can only do the one thing I last wrote down. If I’m going to change tasks, I have to write it down first.

It’s that simple. Write down the time and what you’re about to do. Then do that one thing, and only that thing, until you need/want to do something else. Then write that thing down. Repeat. If something unexpected comes up and you need to deal with it, write it down. That’s now your one “thing.”

Here’s an excerpt from my log for Friday, February 1, 2013:

10:00 work on Coaching Circle planner
11:31 Client coaching call
12:05 work on Coaching Circle planner
12:26 e-mail Coaching Circle planner to recipients
12:35 check facebook
12:38 check e-mail/respond client messages
12:40 lunch and playtime with Liam
2:27 help Emma with online project
2:57 check e-mail/respond client messages
3:10 draft blog post
3:50 write e-mail to EB
3:55 send messages to coaching clients
4:20 writing practice
5:15 depart for Matthew pickup

You get the idea. The thing is, if I hadn’t been keeping this log, I wouldn’t have stuck with that 90-minute focused work block at 10:00, and I wouldn’t have refrained from checking e-mail during my playtime with Liam. Keeping this log continually reminds me of my commitment to doing just one thing at a time, and to doing it as well as I can. For larger projects, I decide ahead of time that I’m going to spend 60 or 90 minutes on that project. Then, if necessary, I stop and move on to the other things that have to get taken care of.

Want to try it? I encourage you to use paper for your time log, rather than an electronic device. Paper is immediate — and unplugged. It isn’t full of distractions like your phone and computer. And I think there’s something about having a log in your own handwriting that keeps it all “real.”

Do yourself a big favor and close your e-mail client and all social media when you’re not actually “doing” those things. Sticking to your time log is easier without those added temptations.

It also helps to spend some time in the morning outlining what you need and want to get done that day, so that as you finish one thing, you don’t get lost trying to decide on the next. Assign time estimates to each task on your list beforehand. And if you like to take a lot of breaks, by all means, take them! Just write down what you’re doing. Then you don’t run the risk of kidding yourself when your 20-minute break turns into a 2-hour social media binge.

The only downside to the log is that now I feel lost without it. I’ve started using it from the moment I get up in the morning. It helps me avoid OD’ing on Words With Friends when I really want to be doing my Morning Pages.

If you’re motivated to try this, or have another plan for reducing your busy-ness, please share it below!


If you’re an artist or writer with little ones, The Creative Mother’s Guide: Six Creative Practices for the Early Years is the essential survival guide written just for you. Concrete strategies for becoming more creative without adding stress and guilt. Filled with the wisdom of 13 insightful creative mothers; written by a certified creativity coach and mother of five. “Highly recommended.” ~Eric Maisel. 35 pages/$11.98. Available for download here.

Cathy: Of pediatric mayhem

Last week, my son K, now 14, was scheduled for a pediatric meds check, because for the first time in his life since going on them at age 7, he has not gone in for illness for the past six months. That was a surprising call I received, during which I realized, omg! he has been healthy for six months in a row! Hallelujah! It’s been a long time.

To satisfy curiosity, he has environmental allergies and asthma, nothing exciting for the gossip mill, like ADHD or childhood depression and anxiety. I have often been asked why I don’t put S on meds for his Asperger’s, but frankly there are none except to cover symptomatic behaviors, of which his can be dealt with through a behavioral approach. Either that or I’m a glutton for suffering. And I’ve heard too many horror stories of wrong meds from the Asperger moms who’ve gone that route. Really, he’s a good guy, just needs some redirection and support — often. But back to K: generally, I’m against meds if another way can be found, but he needs them to breathe.  I’ll concede on that one.

So back to the story: in the lobby, I’m signing him in, making a co-payment, having all three kids with me because it was a half-day of school, and I was up for the adventure. For once, I was able to put C down for her to explore, K is responsible enough to watch her while my back is turned, but apparently he decided to read Compound instead.  I heard a vague sort of squeal, the sound C makes when S picks her up. I checked briefly, gave the usual speech, of arm under her butt, be safe, don’t be too rough, and I turned back to what I was doing. By the time I turned back around, a moment really, S had plopped her precariously on a chair edge and walked away. She was quite happily tipping off the edge and I flew, honestly, my feet didn’t touch the ground, to catch her before the thud and scream. Okay, survived that one. Phew! Another speech:  babies need to be placed all the way back in the chair and supervised carefully, S!

The rest of the waiting room went relatively uneventfully in my book, but probably seemed a cause for concern in others’. S  hummed and ran circles, twisting through any available floor space and intermittently asked random questions or recited whatever cartoon, movie, book was on his mind; K occasionally piped up with a stop it, you’re embarrassing me kind of statement; C was crawling, cruising around, and banging on bead rollercoasters, while I watched it all, letting the noise roll over me, because this is just another five minutes in my life, nothing to stress about. Thank goodness, it was only five minutes. Often, that waiting room can be equivalent to a ring in Dante’s Inferno.

I’ll skip the on the way to the exam room bit for expediency’s sake, because really, this is all just my normal – except, at the weigh-in and measure, K is now officially my height, soon to outgrow. In the exam room, S shot questions at the nurse who I tried to signal to ignore him while providing the answers to her questions that K was not fully providing and telling S that the nurse and K and I needed to talk, could he please just hum in his head for a change, and managing to keep a squirmy girl on my lap. Multitasking at its finest. As a teen, K was basically just saying no or grunting a non-committal response. He hates when I ask how he enjoys being a stereotype.

By the time Dr B arrived, S had rearranged all furniture in the room (so he could look out the window, and he likes to spin and wheel around on the doctor’s stool); C had explored the whole floor and drawers of the exam room with delight; K had sat on the exam table, and helped her, also opening drawers and pushing buttons, because he’s a very tactile, hmmm, what’s in here/what does this do?  kind of guy, and C pooped. At the moment Dr B walked in, S was playing dead, lying on the floor, K was sitting in the corner admonishing S for being on the floor, and I was changing C’s diaper on the exam table.  Having left the diaper bag in the van, I was using the newborn one I found in a drawer.  But you can see why I left it in the van, huh?  I don’t need to keep track of another thing with these three in tow. The look on Dr. B’s face was priceless. I responded cheerily, “Never a dull moment!”

Finally we settled back into appropriate seats, so to speak, as S still had one pulled up to the window and was watching traffic while pretending to be a 50-foot tall monster. Dr. B acknowledged S’s spinning of his stool down, so that he dropped like a rock practically to the floor, and there was a whole discussion about little people and if one was a doctor, wouldn’t they want to have the stool at a higher rather than lower setting thanks to K’s penchant for debate.

So we made it through the appointment. Near the end, S had enough of the room, and Dr. B’s son has painted beautiful nature murals, including lots of under sea creatures in the inner halls. S went out to check that out, and came back stiffly hopping and announcing he was paralyzed by the Portuguese man-of-war sting. I just laughed with Dr B and proclaimed, “Jon and Kate plus Eight have nothing on me!” as C squirmed to get down and the boys chased each other out of the exam room.

Dr. B, always one for a good debate, shot back with “How would you feel about fourteen?”  This launched us into an animated discussion about the irresponsibility of the Octo-mom’s infertility specialist and medical malpractice, to say very little of her mental capacity or financial capacity and why the heck the infertility doctor thought any part of the situation was alright to do what he did, never mind the fact that John and Jane Doe have to pay ten grand to go to the corner clinic to try for one. But the kids were shooting down the hall, K turned into a zombie to scare the bejeez out of S and chase him through the place, C was starting to whine vociferously, and I had to leave this very impassioned discussion, as did Dr B, who needed to rush to his next patient. Amazing what can transpire in an under 30-second doorway conversation.

What am I getting at here? Beats me, except that with Mother’s Day now behind us this year, I think we all deserve to pat ourselves on the back for the things we oversee and endure on a day to day basis. Some of it is fun, some of it is full of love, some of it is excruciating, some of it is a comedy of errors, some of it is barely hanging on by our fingernails, but most likely, at any given moment it’s all of the above.

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