In a recent episode of the 'Cold Feet' comeback series, John Thompson's character Pete attempts to combat a bout of depression with some mindfulness practice. Roping in wife Jen, the wonderfully sarky Fay Ripley, he hands her a raisin and tells her to study it as if seeing it for very first time. Jen takes it and immediately pops it into her mouth and eats it without thinking. An irritated Pete hands her another one and within seconds she's done the same thing again, on autopilot. The scene, a testament to Ripley's dry comic timing, seems to sum up the state of mind of almost every mother I know, myself included, i.e. permanently distracted.
From the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep, my brain operates on two levels - the first level deals with what's in front of me - feeding and entertaining kids, buttoning up coats, answering work emails. The second level is a is like a whirring slot machine of logistical information and forward-planning clunking away in the background - it deals with short term planning (what we need for tea, household chores, text a friend about tomorrow's playdate), medium term (upcoming birthday presents to buy, book injection, bills due, what I need to do at work this week) and long term (what to do for Xmas, school applications, arranging to catch up with old friends, research into house projects and holidays). The result is regular moments throughout the day where I simply glaze over, staring blankly into space while an irate child screams "Mummy!!" until I snap out of it.
Sarah Jessica Parker's character in 'I Don't Know How She Does It' illustrates this perfectly when she jolts awake suddenly at 3am every night to go through an ever-increasing mental 'to do' list of inconsequential but essential tasks. You can always tell when another Mum has gone into the 'zone' - usually when put on the spot about plans. We retreat into our own heads to access our inner spreadsheet, more complex than a Rubik's cube, and calculate how we can make it work by rescheduling meetings, pulling in favours from grandparents and postponing our own haircuts for yet another week.
And then there are the moments where it doesn't work and we drop one of the balls. I can remember with crystal clarity standing in the queue for a soft-play centre when the mother behind me suddenly muttered 'OH GOD!' in a tone that made me whip round. "I've just remembered, it's my best friend's daughter's birthday, I'd completely forgotten, we're supposed to be there in FIVE MINUTES". She had blind panic in her eyes and we both uttered the same mild expletive in unison. "Where is it?" I asked. She named a town at least 5 miles away. Our brains whirred simultaneously. "If you avoid the town centre and take the A329 you might just make it" I suggested. "But the present?" she said weakly. I paused...."big M&S on the corner, outfit in a gift bag?". Her eyes lit up - "YES". She grabbed two confused, protesting kids and sprinted off. Then turned back round in horror as she reached the car holding the toddler aloft "Christ, he's done a poo!". But at that point it didn't matter, she was focused and determined, she was starring in her own action movie, high on the adrenaline of knowing you're going to narrowly avert disaster.
I think the only time I am truly 'in the moment' these days is when I'm in the great outdoors at the weekend or on holiday. If the sun is shining and we're not in a rush, if there are beaches, fields or woods to explore, then something magical always seems happen. I stop thinking and start giving my full attention to what's in front of me - relishing sweet silly little moments with the kids, having a laugh with my husband and breathing in the fresh air. Getting regular breaks from the screens, mess and chores of home seems to be the secret.
And secretly I relish the chaos and last-minute panics a lot of the time. Perhaps because it's as close to living on the edge as it gets these days but there's a bit of a thrill to be had in scrabbling together a half-decent four-year old's fancy dress outfit 5 minutes before the nursery fundraising day you had completely forgotten about. It just feels more fun than being organised all the time and it reaffirms what all Mums know deep in their bones - that we can perform better under pressure than most high-powered CEOs. If only we had the time.