As a minister and a mother, I have a relentless, nagging sensation that I should always be doing something else. If I’m folding laundry, should I instead be reading with my son? If I’m answering e-mail, should I be visiting the sick instead? If I’m reading a book about prayer, should I be working on the bulletin instead? All of those things matter, and all of them are important—which one should I be doing right now? I suspect this condition is not limited to parent-pastors, but spreads to all kinds of parents, whether or not you work outside the home.
The nagging isn’t benign for long. It quickly balloons into anxiety, then creeps into a version of multi-tasking, perpetually distracted and chronically uncertain—washing dishes while making a phone call, skimming e-mail on my phone while listening to my son talk about his day, preparing for bible study in the bleachers at Little League practice. When I try to give my attention to everything, I end up giving it to nothing. Wherever I am, I feel like I should be somewhere else. Whatever my body does, my mind is doing something else. I am anxious and miserable, feeling like a lousy pastor and a lousy parent both. Throw in the desire to do something “just for me,” and you get a big pile of resentment.
Last week, my son was out of school for Fall Break. He and my husband were able to travel to visit grandparents, and I was home alone for an entire weekend. I threw myself into work, reading and preparing and accomplishing all sorts of projects. While I missed them, I felt so grateful, so free to stop juggling roles for a little while. All I had to do was be a pastor for a while.
The pressure and sense of distraction returned almost as soon as they pulled into the driveway. I felt myself growing resentful of one role, then another. I snapped at my son for interrupting my sermon preparation on a weekday afternoon, then responded with curtness when a church member called during dinner. Whatever I did, I was agitated and distracted. I missed time for myself.
On Thursday, my husband was working a 12-hour day, and my son was still out of school. Looking over my calendar, I had no appointments. I decided to stay home from church on Thursday and work on Friday instead, switching my normal day off. I promised my son we would find something fun to do, just the two of us.
In the morning in our pajamas, he asked me to play Legos. I had hoped to do some work while he was watching Curious George, but I had promised him my attention for the day. Dutifully, I got down on the floor. Then something shifted in me. I decided I was really going to take the day off. The laptop remained closed, the phone put away, and I suddenly started to feel better than I had in days. It’s not that we hadn’t played together—it’s that, for the first time in far too long, I had abandoned myself to just one thing. I let myself be fully present—just reconstructing a Lego rocket that had suffered a disastrous explosion when someone put Lego dynamite in the Lego oxygen tank.
There is an article by M. Shawn Copeland, “Saying Yes and Saying No,” (in Practicing our Faith, ed. Dorothy Bass) which I have read and reread countless times. Copeland argues that the practice of saying “yes” and saying “no” is a spiritual discipline. She writes, “Sometimes, saying ‘yes’ to one thing means giving up something else. … Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project. It is learning to live not merely in dull balance or tedious moderation but in passionate, disciplined choice and action.” (66-67)
I decided that, just for Thursday, I would say “yes” to time with my son and “no” to all other distractions. If there had been a pastoral emergency, I’m sure I would have answered, but there wasn’t. I made an effort to say “yes” to him alone, just for that one day. When he asked to play Monopoly, I did not roll my eyes and suggest a shorter board game. When we went to the park, I climbed the jungle gym rather than sitting on a bench checking e-mail on my phone. When he suggested a surprise visit to dad’s work, I turned the car around and changed directions. I did not secretly wish I could be curled up with a good book or getting started on Sunday’s message. I said “no” to those things, and said “yes” to time with my son.
I found a lightness and joy in parenting I had not found in a long time. The next day, I said “yes” to work for a few hours. Instead of wishing I could escape or feeling guilty for not being home with my son, I felt present, undistracted, whole.
I cannot control the long list of competing demands on my time, personally and professionally. But I can control my “yes” and my “no.” Rather than juggling every minute, moment-to-moment, I’m going to practice saying an earnest “yes” to one thing at a time, even when it means a firm “no” to something else. If I start to get out of balance, I’m going try another full “day of yes” with my son, to remember again what it feels like to be present, undistracted and whole. It’s going to take practice, but I am praying that a “day of yes” (and the corresponding list of no’s) will keep me saying the most important yes of all, the yes to God.