Monday, February 10, 2014

The Backwards To Do List: Lessons In Epic Motherhood

"I feel like I never get anything done," said every mom ever.  EVER.

Today I learned a little trick and a lesson for all of us moms who feel like a cog inside of a cog that's turning a cog (figure that one out).  This is the short story of how that lesson and the Backwards To Do List came about:

This morning began as most mundane mornings do, with my toddler whining like death from her crib.  She's never actually upset, she just likes to greet the day with a dramatic display of how desperate she is to get out of her crib.  We played a bit, soon Charles woke up, and I got breakfast going.  Messes happened, there was a short "I can't eat the rest of my scrambled eggs" crisis as well as an "I'm all done" crisis, but we pulled through.  Like a robot, I worked on auto-pilot and wiped food off the table and highchairs, the floors, counters, and children. I changed diapers, nursed and put Charles down for a nap.  Alice and I entertained each other.  Between primal conversations with Alice, shushing her loud singing, and scooting her away from the bathroom toilet, I got dressed.  I was soon back in the kitchen, making grilled cheese and steaming green beans.  We ate.  Charles awoke.  Charles ate. Alice spilled some green beans.  I blended some green beans for Charles, had some extra, put it in the freezer for later.  I finally put Alice down for her nap and came out of her room, Charles on my hip, tired and sighing.  I thought my frequent thought, "I never get anything done."  I had a sink piled with dishes to hand wash (no dishwasher in these parts), Charles was cranky, and I still had clothes to fold and dinner to think about and "Uuuugh, I'm so tired."  I hate feeling bogged down/sad/depressed, and I do what I can to make those feelings right because they have a tendency to overcome me and I just flat out hate feeling that way... so I grabbed a pen and paper and started writing.

I did not write what I had to do.  I wrote down everything I had already done... even the things I would never normally put on a "to do" list (like changing a diaper), I wrote down.  If I had put my time and effort into it, it went on the list.  With this list I discovered that by 1:30 I had:

- Exercised and dressed
- Cleared the clean dishes in the kitchen
-  Kids dressed/diapers changed throughout day
- Made breakfast and lunch
- Made baby food for Charles
- Swept the kitchen/dining room
- Organized a stack of clothes in our bedroom
- Made the bed
- Tidied the living room after putting Alice down

I then wrote down what I saw around the house that was burdening me with MORE things to do:
- Tired/needy Charles
- Clothes needing to be folded
- Dirty dishes
- Messy desk
- Dinner to be made

The first list - my Backwards To Do List - was impressive!  The second list - more of a To Do List - turned out to be minimal in light of what I had already accomplished.

I do get things done.  Moms out there: you do get things done.  The problem is that these things happen everyday: life feels like a toddler treadmill because life IS a toddler treadmill.  What is a toddler treadmill?  It's that thing where you are walking ahead of your toddler, cleaning all of their messes and toys and spilled food, and they are right behind you, creating a new mess that you continue to clean that they continue to mess up and so on.  You - we - are constantly doing and re-doing and it gets really, really old.  It makes your weary self look back on the day and say, "How special! I maintained the status quo!"  And then you wade through your messy house and wonder if you'll ever get anything done.

When this happens, sit down and write a Backwards To Do List.  You will very likely see that maintaining the status quo is a very difficult task, full of hard work that you should be proud of.

What's that you say?  It's hard to be proud of changing a diaper, drawing a fish 567 times, staying in your pajamas until 11, and your most intellectual conversation of the day being about the color blue?  I'll give you that.  It does feel stupid to be proud of that.  It would feel a lot more worthwhile to be proud of something you accomplished that challenged you, used your brain, pushed you, and gave you immediate results, maybe including a gold star and pat on the back.

But I will leave you with my conclusion to the lesson behind this madness: if diaper-changing, fish-drawing, pajama-staying, and blue-talking are not a challenge to our adult selves, why is it so hard to get through a day that is full of such things?  Because they are challenging, but perhaps not in the way we would like.

As mothers, we have been given the task of rising to the occasion when poop happens.  Doesn't that sound meaningful?

As mothers, we have been given the task of responding to our child's screams of "I DON'T WANT THESE PERFECT-LOOKING ORGANIC APPLES THAT YOU SLICED AND PEELED SO CAREFULLY FOR ME," when all we can think about is the now freezing bowl of soup we have been waiting an hour to eat.  That sounds positively stupid.

As mothers, we have have been given the task of hugging, comforting, and loving when our child cries.  That sounds a little more meaningful.

As mothers, we have been given the task of showing these little humans -- who have seen so little of life and whose hearts are so fresh that they don't know how to say "no" to themselves, how to hide their emotions, or how to think of you before they think of themselves -- how to function, live, and love.  That is deeply meaningful.

When you kiss their chubby cheeks at 12:00 in the afternoon, still in your pajamas because they haven't allowed you to think of yourself, you are teaching them selflessness.  When you correct their screams with a calm voice, you are teaching them self-control. When you direct their hands away from the toilet, you are teaching them common sense.  When you talk about the color blue, you are teaching them the art of conversation.  Do all of these things without loathing, and you teach them love.

You would think being a part of such large accomplishments in a little human's life would make every day feel epic.  I wish.

Pray for patience, be tender-hearted, and strive to see the wonder behind a house covered in crayons, dollhouse people, squished peas, and smelly diapers.  When you can't see the wonder and would rather give up and die, play the Lord of the Rings Sound track, write a Backwards To Do List, and bask in how epic motherhood can be.


  1. This is wonderful perspective!! I think I need a daily backwards to do list! :)

  2. You're a good mom, Julie. Happy to read your exasperated and wise thoughts. :)