(Jennifer Meer)

It’s a pretty typical Sunday morning. The house is a disaster and I survey the damage. There are boots and coats and toys and books and dishes as far as the eye can see. And socks. My god there are socks everywhere. For a reason I can’t quite explain, my children go through three or four pairs of socks each day. They take them off whenever they come inside the house and replace them with a fresh pair. And they leave their old socks just about anywhere. I can always tell just how much we’ve let things slide by how many stray socks are in my line of sight.

I review the list in my head of what needs to get done. Sunday will be busy. I’ve done two loads of laundry already and the hamper is still completely full. I have no idea how this is even possible. We’ve got two birthday parties to attend and three cards to make, the grocery shopping is a high priority, at least one or two naps for the baby will be necessary, both Phil and I want to exercise, Dylan’s basketball game, bills, chores, oil changes….

At some point I just give up mentally listing it, knowing that the odds that all of it will get done are slim. Already, somewhere around 9:15 a.m., I feel a sense of futility about the day. I know I will go to the bed and the house will still be a mess. The hamper will still be full. Those three phone calls I needed to make? I probably won’t get to them. I will be so busy, but to what end?

[Read: Are you living or are you skimming?]

I head downstairs to see if Dylan is ready for his first birthday party of the day. He is working on a birthday card and I see his favorite board game by his feet. I know he leaves it close by him, hoping that if someone walks by unsuspectingly, he will lure them in to play. I remember so acutely what it is like to want a grown up’s attention. So I quickly say without even thinking, “Will you promise me one game today? It probably won’t be till much later, but I want you to promise me that you and I will have a game.” He does, and off we go into the busy of the day.

I’ve been very stuck on the concept of busy lately – of what constitutes busy, what makes us feel that way. Lately, I feel like I’ve been stuck in the cult of busy. I talk so much about how busy I am because I think that makes me feel relevant and important (to whom?). But I’m not sure that the swirl of mental and physical chaos I’ve been operating in actually constitutes relevance or importance.

Recently, I watched a short clip of Kory Kogon, one of the authors of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, talking about how too often we fill our lives and commentary with busy. That is, we focus on the transactional parts of the day. But in fact, everyone is busy, but only some of us are actually productive. She says that the difference between busy and productive lies in the answer to these questions: Am I getting the right things done? Am I getting the important things done? Being productive means shifting your emphasis away from all the mindless flotsam that is always going to fill up your day, and focusing instead on the two or three big rocks that are going to move you toward your goal.

If I take Kogon’s words at face value, being a productive parent on any given day means I have to actually know what the goal is (which I don’t always) and to do something each day that reflects that I am moving toward it. Sometimes it just so easy to forget that our job is not to just exist as our children’s caretakers, their laundry do-ers and grocery shoppers, but that there is bigger stuff at work. That we must always keep our eyes on the real goal: that of raising men and women with empathy and curiosity. I’ve always despised how few handbooks there are on this. How you just have to love and feel your way through it. How you have to model and teach something that is nearly impossible to wrap your fingers around.

The day unfolds much as I expect. We are busy. We are seemingly in constant motion and the baby never gets to nap. She eats lunch on a basketball court, the rest of us in our car. Dylan shows some questionable sportsmanship on the court and we go home and have a difficult conversation about what it means to be a teammate and friend. There are tears and it feels like a complete waste that everyone has exhausted themselves and most of the afternoon doing something that he declares as officially the worst day ever. The hamper is still full. And there are socks everywhere.

But we limp toward bedtime. We get everyone bathed and mostly fed with something that mildly looks like dinner and involves at least one fruit, one vegetable, and many nitrates.

And then Dylan reminds me of my early morning promise. So I walk away from the tower of dishes and we play a rousing game of NFL Game Day. In the end, my Dallas Cowboys narrowly defeat his Arizona Cardinals. He is gracious in defeat.

As he cleans up the game, I ask him what the best part of his day has been. There were two hours of Super Mario Brothers, two birthday parties, a cupcake and cake, and one basketball game. Despite all of this, I am sure I already know his answer. He smiles and replies, “This!”

I smile back. I kept my promise to him and I think he’ll remember that. He’s a good boy. A feeling of pride in my chest flickers like a tiny reminder of what is really important, of what it is my husband and I are actually doing here.

Dirty socks and dishes abound, but he lets me kiss him on top of his head while he cleans up our game. I feel pretty productive.

Jennifer Meer, a mother of three, lives in New England where she writes her blog, My Jenn-eration. You can also find her on twitter @JennMeer.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter. We Pin. We Tweet.

You might also be interested in:

How I learned to be a more mindful parent

Learning to stay afloat, all of us

Why parents need to stop making everything look so perfect online