In the first days of the new year, many of us reflect on what we’d like to accomplish in the months ahead. The new year feels like a blank slate, full of exciting possibilities.It could be the year we finally climb that mountain, run that marathon, or — in my own case — give that presentation at a conference that we’ve been thinking about giving for years. I’m not big on “resolutions” myself, on an annual basis. I’m more in the practice of making lists of things that I’d like to do more of. Not necessarily things about myself that I’d like to change, as I’m never terribly successful at that, but instead things that I really enjoy doing that I’d like to do more of, or things that make me feel good about life, the universe, and everything. Over the past few years, I’ve found that I’m able to tick off these lists quite handily over the course of the year and they really do make me more mindful of focusing on good things as the year progresses. As an example, last year I had written down that I’d like to make a point of attending more concerts because that’s something I love to do that I hadn’t done much of. Making myself consciously open to it, I had attended three such events before the year was half over and found myself feeling quite culturally satisfied.
I also like to take some time to think about my work and what I’d like to do more of. This year, I ridiculously found myself writing down that I’d like to be more “patient”. I’m certain this is the desire of everyone who has children in their lives (and many who don’t). As I reflected on it, however, I found it was too vague and generic. I asked myself what that would realistically look like in my day-to-day work with children, families, and colleagues. Where would this magical, new, extra patience come from? Sometimes I feel that I find less and less of it as the days go by, so the idea that I could just write it down and make it so was — we can all agree — laughable.
When people hear that I work with infants and toddlers, common responses are, “Oh, that must be so much fun!” and, “You must have so much patience.” I feel that these two responses are closely related because they betray two of the most common myths about what I do (although it is, more often than not, tremendously fun and does seem to require that one not be tremendously impatient, by nature).
Myth # 1: It’s fun!
Reality: This is my work, so while I do tremendously, intensely enjoy the infants and toddlers I work with and certainly laugh much more often than most people probably do in their jobs, I feel the same weight of responsibility, deliberateness, and overall seriousness that a job of this nature requires (which is often the very aspect of what I do that frays at my patience, as time passes). The children themselves are fun (and, of course, cute!), but my assignment requires much more than sitting back to observe merriment among small people. I have deadlines to meet, expectations to fulfill, and seemingly endless challenges to try to overcome. At our staff holiday party last month, one of my co-workers who teaches in the preschool commented, “I love to look into your room. I could never do what you do though. I just can’t sit so peacefully that much.” One of my infant co-teachers caught my eye afterwards and we shared a secret laugh: “She thinks we sit all day! PEACEFULLY!” She thinks this because each time she passes by, she can see that we’re on the floor with the children. We’re probably, more often than not, smiling too! Looking for all the world like we’re just having fun. Maybe even looking serene, exuding the air of peace that a good infant program ought to, which fails to betray the busy humming beneath the surface. I have never had a job that is more physical, more intensive, or more deeply (gratifyingly) exhausting than caring for infants and toddlers. This work that I do requires my entire brain, body, and heart just about every second of the work day. When you look through the window and see me “sitting peacefully,” what you may not know is that I am positioned right here so I can watch those busy toddlers closely, hold this fussy baby in one arm, reassure this crawling infant who doesn’t want her people more than an arm’s length away right now or she’ll be in panic mode, and read a story at the same time.
Myth # 2: We have superhuman patience.
Reality: I’m just like everyone else, I just have slightly better impulse control, partially because (see above) it’s my job. I’ve been trained over years to respond to children in a certain style, so when all else fails, I have a toolbox of tricks to fall back on. I’ve been working with children for long enough that I’ve seen and heard a lot. I’ve learned and grown and matured into my current role, but I’m (really) far from perfect. I do lose my patience, although perhaps less frequently than someone who does not spend nine hours a day five days a week with infants and toddlers. Just like everyone else, I’m hard on myself when I do. Some of the people that I admire most are the people who have more patience than I do. I wonder what their secret is. But maybe it’s similar to my own, when others presume a level of patience that I doubt myself to possess: I’m pretty good at faking it. I am good at keeping calm, in certain situations. Two toddlers clinging to my legs, crying, while I’m in the middle of changing the diaper of a third and a co-worker tries to ask me a question and the phone rings? No problem. But it’s nearly 6:00 PM on a particularly Monday Monday and a toddler experiments with pinching (me) for the twentieth time that day? I might snap, “NO! NO pinching!” and feel like crying myself when their face crumples.
I definitely want more fun and less impatience, but I need to delve deeper into what that means and looks like.
“The keys to patience are acceptance and faith. Accept things as they are, and look realistically at the world around you. Have faith in yourself and in the direction you have chosen.” – Ralph Marston
In terms of my work, what does the idea of being more patient mean?
- It means to slow down. To ignore the perceived “schedule” of the day and to be in tune with the natural flow of the children. To allow things to take time (Magda Gerber’s quote on development rings in my head quite often: “In time. Not on time”).
- To allow myself and the day to be imperfect, being brave enough to let go of some of the expectations of the families in favor of doing what is best for each unique child on each unique day.
- To make even more eye contact and soul contact with the children in my care, because when I feel more connected to them, they feel most connected to me.
- To be more reflective, which means engaging in more meaningful documentation and conversation.
- Take a few deep breaths before responding to a pincher (or biter or hitter or…).
This seems like a reasonable start.