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Unsubscribing from the Culture of Busyness

by Leslie J. Davis
Photo by: Shutterstock

Sometimes I feel guilty when people complain about how busy they are, like we’re getting away with something scandalous. Maybe we are…? When it comes to being busy, our family is definitely not keeping up with the Joneses. Our lives are full, and at times, very full, but we typically aren’t “too busy.” What I mean by this is that we make a conscious effort not to overextend ourselves with commitments. We don’t subscribe to the belief system that being busy is good. That being busy is necessary. That being busy defines us.

Our family culture is not based on busyness.

When I became a mom, I realized that too much activity was counterproductive to the family culture I wanted to create: a life of presence. To accomplish this, we practice saying no and we are extra mindful of where, when, and how often we say yes. We create down-time. We stay home a lot. Most importantly, we aim to be present with ourselves and others during the activities we choose to engage in.

When our kids were little, I decided not to fill their days with activities, classes, and play dates. Everywhere we turned, there were opportunities for activities: mommy-and-me playtime, yoga class, swimming lessons, toddler gyms, park days, trips to the zoo, preschool, music lessons, art classes. I wanted meaningful and non-hurried experiences for myself as a new mom and for my littles.

But wasn’t it meaningful and important to make music? Art? Learn to swim? Play with other kids? Yes, of course it was. As a new mom with a toddler and a baby, this confused me. I was easily led by what other mamas were doing. But deep inside where my truth resided, I knew I wanted a slower pace for my family. We lived in an old 1916 two-story craftsman on a quiet street in California. The house itself invited slowness.

I came up with my “one thing at a time” rule. I would sign my son up for one activity at a time. When the series of swimming lessons were over, we signed up for art class. When art classes finished we went to kinder gym. Doing one thing at a time was enough. Doing one thing at a time allowed us the space to fully engage in that activity and not get overtired, cranky or stressed.

Often, we went months without any organized or structured activities. Our days were filled with slow walks to the neighborhood coffee shop, collecting sticks and rocks along the way, unhurried visits to the library, hanging cloth diapers on the line in the sunshine, playing with trucks and cars in the dirt.

It’s harder now with active teens and both parents working. We still maintain our “one thing at a time” rule, but we aren’t strict about it. We have cycles of “busy” and “not-so-busy” based on what life throws at us, but our default family setting is to take it easy.

Sometimes it’s hard – we’re definitely going against the grain. It can feel counter-intuitive, self-centered, and even snobby when we turn down invitations in favor of honoring our downtime. It takes a very conscious effort and commitment to avoid that feeling of being too busy. And often we fail.

Busyness doesn’t define our worth. Most of us know this, but do we believe it? Our activities and accomplishments don’t define us or our worthiness. We all have a deeper purpose and a deeper sense of self that isn’t measured against how much we do in a day.

Meditation and mindfulness practice has deeply informed our family culture. My innate desire to keep it simple is supported by the Buddhist mindfulness values I’ve learned from Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastic and lay community. Thich Nhat Hanh has a teaching that he calls “busylessness:” that we engage deeply in being not busy. Our spiritual practice of mindfulness opens opportunities for us to touch things a little more deeply, to notice the small things, to be with ourselves and our feelings, as well as each other.

I’m sure some people see me as reclusive, neglectful, lazy, and weird. I struggle with feelings of being judged. I feel inadequate at times for not exposing my kids to enough. It’s easy to get swept up in what friends and neighbors are doing, the choices they’re making for their children and families. It’s easy for me to judge others by their degree of busyness, and to even judge my own family by ours. In my heart, I know we are choosing a lifestyle that works for us and has meaning for us.

All this said, we often feel too busy! Even when we don’t subscribe to the culture of busyness, it’s impossible to avoid because of the dominant culture we live in. I find solace in taking it slow and having space in my days. Some days it flows naturally and other days I have to remind myself of my intention to slow the pace. Still other days fly by with too much activity and I forget all about my intentions until my head hits the pillow at bedtime. When that happens, I remind myself that each new day is an opportunity to be present and let go of being busy.

Leslie J. Davis (she/her) writes, mothers, loves and learns in Ojai, California with her husband and two teenagers. She writes to discover who she is and is not. She has been published in Mothering Magazine, Lion’s Roar, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, The Mindfulness Bell. Leslie is currently writing a memoir about healing through mindful parenting.

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