What does flow have to do with parenting?

Here’s what you need to achieve Flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. a situation where you can concentrate properly on a few limited things
  2. you can use your skills to meet clear demands
  3. you can forget your day-to-day problems
  4. you can forget your own separate identity
  5. you obtain a feeling of control over your environment
  6. you may achieve “a transcendence of ego boundaries and consequent psychic integration with metapersonal systems”.

I don’t know what 6 means, but my assessment is that 1-5 are impossible for mothers of small children.  Personally, I can only achieve these requirements by leaving the house and my children and going to do something else entirely.

The concept of flow annoys me (and not because Csikszentmihalyi has two sons whose care probably interrupted the flow of someone other than him on a day-to-day basis when they were small because, after all, I don’t know anything about his personal life).  It’s the reverence with which it’s described.  Flow is characteristically present in play, in artistic and religious activities.  It’s almost as if there is something moral about achieving flow in your life.  Czikszentmihalyi writes, “when an activity involves the person completely with its demands for action, “selfish” considerations become irrelevant.”

So, for example, my friend who is at home with her three small children is not achieving flow unlike her husband who is playing golf right now.  He only needs to concentrate on the position of the ball, the slope of the ground.  He has a feeling of complete control as he selects a club and lines up to perform his well-practiced swing.  He is one with the club, with the sky, with the whole world.  His day-to-day problems (such as the mushed up weetbix on the floor, the broken dishwasher, the pile of laundry, his daughter’s failure to crawl) are far from his mind.  It’s almost a religious experience or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “a loss of ego”.

It reminds me of the time I did a meditation retreat in Thailand.  There, Buddhist monks and other trainees work towards mental detachment through meditation.  The practice is supported by lay women who do most of the shopping and cooking.

The other reason I don’t like flow is because it’s supposed to exist when the task requirements meet your optimal level of capability.  If a situation is too hard and overwhelming, you can’t achieve flow because you’re too stressed.  If a situation is too easy, it’s too boring to achieve flow.  But motherhood is both overwhelming and stressful AND boring.  All at once.



The reason I was reading about flow in the first place was because of this idea of it being autotelic, which means done for its own sake, without extrinsic goals.  Rock climbing is autotelic because climbers are not really motivated to reach the top of the mountain (in many cases they could just drive up there or walk an easier way), but are climbing for the joy of it.  Art is all about process, not outcome.  Similarly, I don’t think we are looking after our children in order to produce adequate adults some day, although no doubt we could produce an answer like that when pressed.  We’re doing it for the joy of it.  Except that, of course, when it’s not joyful we still do it.

Parenting is goalless (?), but parenting is the opposite of flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi.  Sometimes people talk about the joys of parenting, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that parenting is a joy-based choice in the same way that rock-climbing is.



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