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Using Your Mind While Minding Your Children

By Linda Glaser
West Orange, New Jersey USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 3, May-June 2000, pp. 76-79

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

When a friend of mine was home with two children under the age of three, she told me that her brain had "turned to mush." She claimed it was an evolutionary survival mechanism so that mothers wouldn't get bored with babies who could only converse about "wa-wa." At the time, I assumed my friend's response was normal. She'd been a teacher, interested in politics, literature, and film; of course, now that she had babies, she'd no longer have time or interest for any of that.

Now, I, too am a mother of small children and I realize that abandoning all intellectual stimulation is unnecessary and even, perhaps, unwise. I love my children and love spending time with them; I have made adjustments and sacrifices in order to stay home and care for them.

Loving our children, however, does not mean that mothers must love themselves any less. With all the demands of motherhood, it's easy for mothers to neglect their own needs. But if you are bored and unhappy, you won't be able to give your child the wide variety of stimulation that research shows is best for children's mental development. Heed your own intellectual needs and you'll be caring for your child's as well. Mothers can find ways to continue doing interesting things after their children are born. The challenge is to balance the needs of babies and children with adult interests.

Field Trips

Babies who don't yet walk are extremely portable. Put them in a sling (which makes it easy to nurse them when they fuss) or another baby carrier and bring them along to places that interest you. Now is the time to go places - it gets harder when babies start to crawl and walk.

If you can, pick a time of day when your baby is usually good-tempered, such as after a nap. Or, conversely, go at naptime and nurse your baby to sleep when you get there. You can enjoy the event or stroll past the paintings while your baby enjoys a nap, snuggled in the sling. I took my three-month-old to an evening folk music concert; she listened for a few minutes, then nursed to sleep. She roused a bit when the audience clapped, but then settled back to breastfeeding and napping.

Take advantage of free concerts, art shows, or lectures when your children are small. If they fuss and you have to leave, at least it hasn't cost you anything. Whenever possible, sit near an exit at an event so that you can leave without disturbing others. If your baby is quieter while you're in motion, try standing in the back of the room or in the doorway, so you can sway and listen at the same time. You can probably find a way to respond to your baby's needs and listen to what's going on at almost every kind of adult event.

Learn Something New

While caring for young children takes lots of time, the slower pace of life during these years can make it possible for mothers to try things they've never tried before. Learning something new cures boredom and also sets a great example for your children. A positive attitude toward lifelong learning begins at home.

Learning a foreign language at home may sound daunting, but it's a challenge in which preschoolers and older children can readily participate. Tutoring, audiotapes, workbooks, and even multi- lingual babysitters, visitors, or family members can bring another language into your home. Children love learning new words, especially if you share your new "secret" language with them. Make the house into a language lab by putting up signs in the new language on everything in the house. Listen to music with your children in the language you're learning. Once you've made some progress, try making one hour a day a language immersion game, where everything must be said in the language that you're learning or through pantomime. You'll have great fun trying to communicate and act out what you mean, and you'll be surprised how quickly your vocabulary grows.

Or you might want to learn a new hobby or craft. This is easier with help from a friend. Cindy, a mother in California, left a university environment to stay home with her children. She and her friends trade skills as a way to enrich their lives. One woman taught her neighbor woodworking in exchange for sewing lessons. They did their teaching while the kids played, then took turns babysitting so they could have time alone to practice their new skills.

Many people study for years to become child development specialists. Being at home with your children offers ample opportunities for "hands-on" observation of child development. Take some time each day to observe your child as objectively as possible. Keep a journal, if you like. Then read up on the stages of your child's development, including language, mental, emotional, and physical. Classes or lectures on child development are often offered on weekends or at night, which may make it easier for at-home mothers to attend.

Computers and the Internet open many possibilities for learning and meeting people with a wide variety of interests, at any time of the day or night. You can put your baby in a sling or other baby carrier, and sit at the computer with the baby. Babies quickly become proficient in "nakking"- nursing at the keyboard. Older children may enjoy watching you use programs with graphics. My two-year-old loves hearing and seeing the entries in our encyclopedia CD. While she's captivated by the sounds and pictures, I read the text.

Art Appreciation

A trip to an art museum can be a wonderful outing for children. Babies enjoy looking at shapes and colors; abstract art sometimes looks just like a child's own art projects. For older children you can make your museum visit into a game, going through the museum on an "art hunt," identifying different kinds of artwork or artistic styles. When you return home, you can do art projects based on things you saw at the museum.

My daughter has an insatiable appetite for art projects. Every day my creativity is challenged, as I try to come up with new things for her to try. One day, as she made a clay bowl, I realized it looked like fun. Now whenever she does an art project, I join in. Working with her has inspired me to get books on drawing from the library, and we practice drawing animals and people together.

The Joy of Music

Children love music. You don't, however, have to fall victim to the "Barney" syndrome, where mothers find themselves listening to bright, cheery, repetitious children's music all day long. Play the music you enjoy. You can borrow tapes and CDs from your local library, making it possible to explore a wide range of musical styles without spending any money. Stop what you're doing and really listen for a while, or better yet, get up and move to the music with your children. Even a baby in arms will enjoy this.

Listening to different kinds of music is good for children as well as adults. Research suggests that listening to classical music (such as Mozart) may help a child's intellectual development. Music can also make children aware of other times and other places. One mother played her own rock-and-roll favorites from the Sixties and Seventies so often that her children learned to recognize the different musical groups. As her children grew older, their favorite car game became "name that group"!

One mother in California decided to take up an instrument when her children were small. Her husband cares for the children while she has her weekly one hour lesson, then she practices while she's watching her children. "My son," she says, "never fails to clap for me!" Some types of classes offer the option for parent and child to take lessons together.

Science Can Be Fun

Many scientific interests can be pursued with children. As one mother said about her two-year-old, "Everything's a science experiment!" Harness your child's natural curiosity to a topic you enjoy. Fascinated by whales? Play whale songs to your baby, or get books on whales from the library. Look for an adult book that has pictures a child would enjoy and practice identifying the different species with your toddler.

Read Read Read

Breastfeeding mothers spend a lot of time sitting down nursing the baby. If you're an avid reader, you've probably discovered that feeding times allow you to indulge in your favorite pastime. Challenge yourself to expand your horizons with your choices in reading material. Subscribe to a new magazine or read the daily newspaper from front to back. Read your way through a series of detective novels, or pick up some hefty non-fiction and prop the book on pillows while you nurse your baby. If your baby or child gets restless or demanding when mother's nose is in a book, try doing your reading out loud. Babies especially enjoy the sound of a parent's voice. Show toddlers and preschoolers the pictures in your newspaper or magazine, or tell them the exciting story of your novel.

Reading doesn't have to cost you anything. If you make regular trips to the public library, you can have books by the armload. If you have a toddler in tow, you may have to choose titles quickly and decide at home which ones you'll read in depth. Or go to the library as a family. Dad can supervise in the children's department while mother browses the adult stacks, and then parents can trade places.

Many mothers join or create book clubs. They bring their children along to meetings and nurse or play with a toddler while participating in the adult discussion. Some groups read books on parenting topics; other groups prefer the classics or popular literature. One mother eventually turned her classics book club studies into a PhD thesis.

If you love writing but can't find enough time to do any lengthy projects, try short pieces, such as essays, letters, or short poems. You can compose in snatches while your children play or nap. Or keep a journal about your children or about your own thoughts. Entries can be jotted down while you're waiting for water to boil on the stove or the little ones are absorbed coloring.

If writing seems too difficult, try storytelling. Become an oral historian and tell stories about your family. Challenge yourself to create a story that could be passed down through the generations. Once you're pleased with your creation, put it on tape. If you and your child enjoy this, you could expand it into a family history project and interview other relatives for their stories. One mother transcribed the tape she and her children made, bound the pages, and created a book.

Find Interesting Friends

Mothers at home with small children often feel isolated and in need of adult conversation. Even mothers who return to the workplace after their babies are born may find that they must seek out new friends who share their perspective on babies and the importance of families. Spending all or much of your time caring for babies and young children does not have to mean you talk only to children all day or all evening long. New friends in your life will help you stay in touch with the world outside your home.

Search out groups specifically for mothers in your community. Religious institutions, preschools, community centers, libraries, park districts, and other organizations may offer meetings and classes at times convenient to mothers during the day or early evening. These might be groups that discuss parenting topics, or groups of parents who gather to explore other interests. Many provide childcare or supervised activities for preschoolers while the parents participate in an organized lecture and discussion group. Others, like La Leche League, welcome children at the meetings. If you can't find a group like this in your community, you can start one yourself You might call other mothers who were in your childbirth class. Post a sign at churches, local stores, the pediatrician's office, or the library - any place that families gather.

Consider groups that are not specifically for parents. Women's clubs that meet during the day may welcome your children at their meetings; astronomy groups that meet after dark may enable you to attend when your children are asleep. A few hours spent discussing a topic you enjoy can do wonders for your mental health. If you can't physically get to a group, try participating in Internet chat rooms or email lists that can offer many of the same benefits as other groups.

Carla, a mother in Maryland, uses the phone for her intellectual "fix." While making dinner, she calls a friend to discuss "politics, current events, ideas for future books or classes, and yes, even our kids." Some children protest when they see their parents pick up a phone. One way to ease that struggle is to use a cordless phone with a hands-free headset. You might also keep a special drawer or basket with toys in it that come out only when mom is on the phone.

Volunteering

Women sometimes worry that the skills they developed before having children will go to waste - or even atrophy if they are not using them in paid employment. Consider putting your talents to work in a volunteer context. Nonprofit organizations are eager for help, and can often tailor the job to your availability. La Leche League Groups, for example, divide tasks up into "mother-sized" pieces. Being a Group librarian can give you the opportunity to read the latest parenting books and give book reports at LLL Series Meetings. A mother with a background in accounting might enjoy being a Group treasurer. A public relations specialist could have great fun organizing and promoting a World Walk for Breastfeeding event.

Another way of using your skills is to find a cause you care deeply about and become involved. Letter-writing, phone calls, making presentations, and fundraising all utilize important skills and can be done at odd moments. One mother discovered when her first child was a newborn that her housing complex was planning to build a playground using an unsafe design. She mobilized other mothers in the community to protest, researched safe designs, and worked with the contractor to ensure compliance. "As an added bonus," she said, "my children are still enjoying the playground equipment years later!"

Keep Up with Your Profession

If you are taking time out of the workplace to care for your baby, you can still keep up with what's going on in your profession. Subscribe to journals and newsletters or go online and explore websites and message boards. You may even be able to attend conferences or meetings with baby in tow and enjoy networking with others. Some mothers use the time when their children are small to explore new professional interests, with an eye on changing careers when their children are older and they're ready to return to full-time employment.

Home computers and electronic information transfer are making it possible for parents to take on work assignments while caring for children at home. Spending even a few hours a week working on projects for a former employer or a new client will keep you up-to-date on what's happening in your profession and make you feel more a part of the outside world.

Juggling Child Care and Baby's Needs

It can be challenging to care for baby's needs while trying to fill your adult need for intellectual stimulation. When you know that baby is counting on your presence for both nourishment and security, you may not be comfortable with suggestions from family and friends to "get a babysitter and go" to the class or concert that looks so interesting. Even when child care is provided at an event, not all toddlers and preschoolers will be at ease away from mother in an entirely new environment.

You have to be both creative and flexible to solve the child-care dilemma in a way acceptable to both you and your children. Bringing children along works surprisingly well in many situations. Babies, of course, are happy to be near mother and happy to nurse. Simple, quiet toys can entertain older babies. When you have a mobile toddler, you may have to hang out in the back of the meeting room to give your child a place to walk and crawl without disturbing others. Preschoolers can often entertain themselves, at least for a while, with books or paper and crayons. When you bring your children to an adult event, be sensitive to the needs of others. If your child is noisy or distracting, be prepared to leave quickly and graciously.

Many mothers find that older babies, toddlers, and preschoolers are happy with dad, grandma, or another familiar friend for an hour or two during the day or evening. Sometimes bringing the familiar caregiver along to the event is the best solution for everyone. Mother is available for nursing or a quick hug when needed, but there's someone else for baby to play with when mother and others need to concentrate.

The time when children are small is brief but neglecting to spend some of that time enriching yourself can make it seem much linger. Find something you love to do, something that stimulates you intellectually, and do it. With a little flexibility, creativity, and mental effort, mothers can use their minds in all kinds of new ways while minding their children. When they do, everyone benefits.

10 Ways to Find Intellectual Stimulation

Simple or complicated, lengthy or brief: what each of us needs for intellectual stimulation is different. Here are a few ideas to start your creative juices flowing, and help you find just the right combination of activities to satisfy your mind.

  1. Tune the radio to a talk show on an interesting topic and have it playing in the background while you go about your activities.
  2. Host a poetry evening. Invite your guests to bring their favorite poems to read aloud.
  3. Get a portable radio/tape player with headsets for the children to use when you're in the car. While the children in the back seat listen to music on their portable radio, you can listen to the news or a tape of your choice through the car stereo.
  4. Get a word-a-day calendar. Challenge yourself to use the daily word with the little ones, and teach it to them if they're old enough.
  5. Explore new foods and new recipes. You can use a calculator or a computer program to calculate nutritional information about your menus. If your interest in cooking is more cultural than scientific, sample a new cuisine or learn more about the history of the foods you enjoy.
  6. Take out books-on-tape from the library and listen to them at home or in the car.
  7. During moments when the children are otherwise occupied, write short essays or poems for your own pleasure or for possible publication.
  8. Become more involved with La Leche League. In the process, you'll have many opportunities to learn about parenting and breastfeeding.
  9. Tell your children stories. Be as creative as you can. Many great children's books began this way!
  10. Become an interior decorator using your own home. Involve older children with designing, shopping, and implementing the designs.

Last updated 11/16/06 by jlm.
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