The Art of Doing Nothing: Just Being There

Posted in: Viewpoints

by Karem Roitman

In my early 20s my best friend gave me a little book titled ‘The Art of Doing Nothing’. Its advice fell on deaf ears. I was born ‘a doer’. It is my nature to do things and this was lauded in my adopted land, the USA. So I did things: degrees, internships, jobs, art… I was always extremely busy. I was doing. I felt able and successful and I was applauded for what I did.

Then I became a mother.

Motherhood threw me into a level of busyness I couldn’t have envisioned. I was not only running around all day to try and keep a very demanding little boss clean, fed, and entertained, while somehow feeding myself, keeping things tidy, and trying to get out of the house… but my nights were also taken up by feeding and looking after a little bundle of energy and love who seemed to never sleep…it was relentless.

And so I called upon my overachieving ways and worked hard at being a good, no, a GREAT mother. I read and I thought and I worked and I did. I loved my son, and I was grateful for my time with him. Our days, once the chaos of the newborn stage settled a bit, were filled with laughter and peace.

But I did not feel successful or able.

The truth is, I felt like I was doing nothing. I kept holding my breath for naps or bedtime so that I could run away and write, read, paint, do things where my effort resulted in a measurable outcome. Something I could show others.  And I slowly realised that others also thought I was doing nothing. It came in subtle comments. Childless friends who asked what I did now with ‘all my free time’. Or friends who refused to stay home with me and the kids when I was ‘doing  nothing’.

The thing is while I knew that I was doing something precious – I had read all the books and looked at all the research on the importance of parenting –I had imbibed the unspoken societal derision for all that can’t be measured. I was unhappy because no one seemed to see or value the hours spent in cooking, cleaning, and, much more importantly, in gentle caresses, soft kisses, silly singing, and funny games. I wanted someone to value me, to SEE ME!

The irony is that the greatest value of my work as a mother, what no one can measure or replace, is that I SEE my son (and now my two sons!). I am the witness to their life, their mirror as they build their humanity. A thousand times a day they turn to catch my eye in their triumphs and small failures. The first time he turns a switch, in wonder and shock, he runs to me. The hundred and tenth time he speeds through on his imaginary ‘water car’, he subtly notes that I am seeing him. This is mothering. As a mother I am never ‘doing nothing’. Even when I am not visibly multi-tasking like a ninja, in those quite hours that appear uneventful, or in the evening when all is chaos, I am always mothering. They know I am always seeing them, that their experiences matter, are noted. By seeing them I am teaching them that they are valuable, not for what they do, but because they are.

And they are teaching me – I am a slow student – to reorient my value system. That the greatest things one can do are often the ones society does not see (although it should!). That I am often doing the most when I am ‘doing nothing’ – not running errands, or cleaning, or trying to engage with bits of my previous professional life – but just being here, aware, witnessing, seeing.

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