Yesterday, I was in the kitchen making soup for my mother in law who is in town. Age seems to have hit her hard these days, and she has a lot of ailments coming at her weakened body. Layla saw me using the hand blender and wanted to get on a stool and blend, too. Such started our moment in the kitchen, our hands hovering above a steamy pot.
We’d just gotten back from soccer games in the healing Saturday sun, so our energy was invigorated. While in the kitchen, I decided additionally to make mulukhia stew, a traditional middle eastern dish that looks like a one-pot wonder but somehow–in the way of Persian or Arabic cooking– takes a silly-long time to make. While I fried pita chips, Layla wanted to bake pita triangles in the oven with a recipe she got from her class. The kitchen island exploded with olive oil, seasoning, bowls, aluminum foil, cutting boards, and measuring spoons.
As usual in the kitchen, I had some music playing. Humming “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music to the kids is nothing new to them. I’ve dropped in these staple American nodes of my upbringing over the years. My friends joke that I haven’t seen any Star Wars anything, but I know a good bit of our 90s MTV allusions. The kids always like when I get to the part “when the dog bites, when the bees sting…” I decided to play the soundtrack while we busied ourselves in the kitchen.
Somewhere between the foil and the oil, I looked up and laughed to myself. Here was I, this Persian-American (or is it American-Persian?) cooking her Palestinian mother-in-law’s recipe in my Georgian kitchen with my Arabic-Persian-American daughter who just asked for a set of Baby-Sitters Club books, singing along to an iconic American classic soundtrack from a time when my mom sprinkled a little bit of pop culture on me. So we set up our own new stew.
While the sun was up, I loved this idea. Despite all the multculturalisms and the swirl of how life works in my head, the sun set and the yellow of the day turned its trade. I started thinking about what’s been on my mind the last few months: do we want to give our kids a formulaic upbringing?
On some level, maybe the best outcome could be from the ones who can give kids a traditional, safe upbringing nestled in the suburbs with school events on the calendar that we all attend; little birthday parties and seasonal celebrations; high school sporting events and bigger houses. On another level, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this from a teacher’s stance and have almost been a part of this current, too. We moved up in homes and went to good high schools and carved out the most meaning of what we had. I suppose its from the vantage point of having lived some of this that makes me want to give the kids even more of some of that American life that wasn’t on the menu for me–more freedom, more school events, more sports, more options. But most importantly, something about this pattern feels, well, like a pattern. In the life so many of my peers are living now, it feels the options we earnestly give our children and the careers we try to build simultaneously make life a little harder than I thought it would.
Last year taught me to cancel more and keep more time. I’ve recognized that planning too much even for myself only creates anxiety; it only creates the feeling that there is no more time. I can’t throw away the calendar, but I can fill it up less. This year feels like it’s asking for more of that, too. I had a conversation with friends where I admitted to wondering what a year “off” felt like. One year with nothing but time, options for more spontaneity before time runs out and the kids’ lives get faster than ours. A year of “no extra” unless spontaneous.
If I’m truly honest, I think I’m feeling this way more for myself as a parent. I wonder when people take their kids out of school for a year if this is less for the children and more for the parents. An opportunity to live differently and change up the formula.
When I sat atop two beautiful lagoons in Chile, I met a family from Scotland. The family of four was driving through South America. The mom and I talked, and she said she was home schooling the kids this year. As her girls circled around her leg, I found out that her kids were about the same age as my own. She told me that her youngest’s birthday was the following week. “Wow, what a cool way to spend your birthday!” I exclaimed. The mom, almost in a whisper, said that her girl is actually really upset about it. She wants to be at home with her friends and have a party with cupcakes. Despite the mountains in the background, all the little girl wanted was that bite of traditional; what the mom wanted for her and even for herself was something new. And perhaps behind all of this was a set of parents who just wanted to feel what life would be like if it was different for a little while, parents who maybe wanted to enjoy parenthood with their kids instead of finding time for parenthood in the midst of so much life minutia. But, alas, there is no right way, is there?
I don’t know of anyone in my life now who isn’t just doing his or her best to make real sense and meaning. In fact, we were discussing the kids yesterday because of some new challenges, and I brought up that tangential story about the family in Chile. When I was done, Kal said, “So do you want to pack up and do something like that?” I kind of looked away and told him the story is less about doing that and more about this realization that at this stage in the kids’ lives, we as parents have this power to do something different (just knowing we have it makes me wonder what we’ll do with it). In a few years, it won’t be as simple. And Inshallah a few years after that, it won’t be an option because their lives will be more theirs than it is ours. It’s a moment of recognition that my kids’ life is also an experience for us as parents now.
I can’t say I want to slow it all down. Everything has its own time. I can say that I want to feel it differently. I want to look back and know that I felt, recognized, reflected, and changed parenthood for them and with them. I’m opening up this idea that there are only so many years where parents can have equal parts joy and equal parts effort. Maybe, just maybe, part of the formula is weighing our own joy in parenting and our life experience just as much as we weigh what brings our kids joy in their life experience. Wouldn’t it be something to elevate–this idea that being a parent is just as relevant if not more than being a child. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they both weighed and counted the same. And wouldn’t it be even that much more interesting if they both eclipse.