Giving myself the '20 years from now' test

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A basket in my kitchen holds the tools of a mom's scattered trade: a packet of wildflower seeds, a jelly bean, paint samples, my son's favorite Raffi tape, a grocery list, an owl pellet with a tiny embedded set of mouse teeth in a baggie, a spelling test, recipes, a star waiting to be sewn on a tae kwon do uniform, a guitar pick.

Seven years ago, when I put a career on hold so that I could be at home to watch my young sons grow, I thought I would have oodles of time to get organized. Our home would be the essence of tranquillity and order.

Surprise!

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On Wednesdays our living room is scattered with mini-mountain-peaks of Monday's laundry. And when my husband arrives home at 6:30 p.m., not only is dinner still in the making, the boys are usually wound up like hungry cheetahs, sliding on their socks across the dining room floor, pouncing on bits of mango and strawberry as fast as I can slice them.

Sometimes I dream: If only I could send the boys away for a month to a long-lost uncle. Then I would surely have a chance to redecorate a couple of rooms downstairs, landscape the front yard, fill the freezer with home-cooked stews, clear out closets, complete my volunteer commitments, and fill a photo album.

It's slowly dawning on me that no matter how independent the boys become, I'll probably never be "caught up" with all of my projects and responsibilities. And - (insert hearty sigh of relief here) - that's really OK.

When I'm home the possibilities are so unlimited and my ambitions so grand that my week can feel overwhelming. If I'm on the verge of thinking that my family is an inconvenience, I stop for a moment and take the "20 years from now" test.

It goes something like this. Twenty years from now, will my kids more likely remember how organized their closets were or will they remember our hike to the top of the mesa last Saturday when we followed mule deer tracks and watched a red-tailed hawk?

Twenty years from now, will I wish I had spent more time wiping fingerprints off the windows or more time baking bread, examining rock collections, and having backyard picnics with the boys?

I'm not saying that I want to forgo all my creative outlets and domestic duties so that I can spend every hour with the kids. There are days where I know that I'll go nuts if the rugs aren't vacuumed or the bathroom isn't painted. There are other days when I know that it's all right to sit down among the pile of laundry and play a game of Mr. Moose's Memory Match or to clear away the half-assembled lasagna on the countertop so that we can paint our plaster dinosaurs.

When I signed up for momhood, balancing different parts of my life became not only a necessity but an art. I'm still learning how to hone my kid-free moments into more efficient, productive sessions. (Because I don't add to my family's income right now, have I unconsciously assumed that my worth is determined by how many projects I can squeeze into a day?)

But greater work involves slowing down, prioritizing, simplifying, prizing the moment. More and more I'm learning to drop my list of "to-dos" in the basket, focus on the face of the little boy in front of me, really listen to his colorful stories, and promise myself that I'll remember it all 20 years from now.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

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