A few weeks ago, I was packing for a pivotal week-long seminar on the Empire City at Columbia University in New York. I had a list on my phone of things I wanted to prepare for the kids before I left and an equally long list of things I needed to do for myself (order Zade’s eczema cream, get a backpack for the trip). To prepare for my sojourn, I found myself hiding notes and making a scavenger hunt for the days I was going to be away from the kids so that they’d have something to look forward to in my absence. I wanted them to have moments away from me which would make it easier for me to have moments away from them.
My week-long adventure with my friend Tally was filled with historical sites like visiting presidents’ homes and adventurous sites like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. And some tourist attractions like the beautiful central park. Oh, and let’s not forget a blissful moment while reading on Columbia’s beautiful campus.
But it’s so hard to slow down without revving up and preparing to do so. To enjoy the moments ahead, it may take me months of mental preparation to allow myself to get in the zone, and the same goes for an upcoming trip with my kids.
We have a family trip approaching to Canada to see my extended family, and I’m struggling to allow for current, organic, centered moments when I’m meticulously prepping for an international trip.
Like so many, I’m both comforted and discouraged by the noble goal: live in the moment. Reflecting on the moments once they’ve passed is just easier (makes sense since I like to write about them later). I’m so proud of myself when I’m in it though– having that conversation, cozying up in the present glow of it all. “Here it is,” I think. “There’s that look I’ll always remember; I’m so glad we are playing hide and seek instead of folding laundry; look at how they are both holding my hands while we walk across the street, how they fight just to be with me.” These are the sentences I exchange with myself when I’ve clicked in and have felt, even briefly, completely in the moment.
I picked up a book by Jennifer Senior called All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood in a bookstore in the Chelsea Market. I was reluctant about the title (no fun, really?), but I felt so much comfort in the few revelations I read before decidedly walking to the cashier. Her voice will dominate this post, but I hope it helps anyone who reads it the way it has helped me.
Senior leads to bold ideas. She states, for example, “Not all that long ago, mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of controlling how large their families were, or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence we modern parents do….Today, however, adults often view children as one of life’s crowing achievements [and approach them as] they would any other ambitious life project…We have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives.”
Her laying it flat out like this unsettled me a bit at the first read, but a greater part of me enjoyed reading this helpful criticism of the modern parent. Yes, being a parent is dichotomous– maybe just as selfish as it is selfless. What a thought. What a juxtaposition, offering so many areas to consider.
She gains my trust because she’ll balance a deduction like that with emotionally intelligent observations like this: In one instance, she describes a mother who tries to play a game with her child right after his nap, but when her child is resistant to what usually works, she just tilts her head and adjusts. Instead of continuing her pirate game or tickling her son, she “holds her son in a koala hug as she finds a beautiful Spanish ballad. They start to slow-dance. It clicks. The music forms a cocoon around them, as if I’m not even there. Abe melts onto his mother’s shoulder. She breathes him in.”
I feel I’ve been on the both sides of this about thirty times a day—the side who is just trying to make it and feels tremendous guilt for not being a perfect project leader, and the side who has a glimpse of what it’s like to savor that hand on the cheek or that burst of choral giggles. I find genuine comfort in the idea that we modern parents put so much pressure on ourselves, a pressure that wasn’t always there when the idea of having a family was more of a reality of life than a choice in life.
Senior acknowledges why so many of the moments we have with our small children feel so “hard-won, so shatterable, and so fleeting, as if located between parenthesis.” Quoting Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard, Senior justifies, “Everyone would like to be in the present…The difference is that children, by definition, only live in the present, which means that you, as a parent, don’t get much of a chance. “Everyone is moving at the same speed toward the future,” he says. “But your children are moving at that same speed with their eyes closed. So you’re the ones who’ve got to steer.”
Sigh. Relief. Thank you for sentences like these that comfort the anxious side of me that is planning dinner or writing a mental email when my kids are doing something memorable. Thank you for reminding me that I’m just steering, and sometimes I really can’t do that with my eyes closed to feel the breeze.
I can’t predict spontaneous and beautiful moments. That would defeat the point.
But I won’t forget the sound of my kids excitedly screaming, “Mommy!” when they picked me up from the airport last week, or the way that I dropped to my knees to greet them. I won’t forget that I needed intellectual time away from the grind of daily tasks and that I enjoyed my time as a student; the equal best part of that is the renewed way I sunk myself into that moment.
So here it is, folks. My confession: Preparation is often the biggest factor in helping me enjoy the moment. I’m glad to know that it’s just a version of me steering. Yes, I’ll catch a look Layla makes when she’s engrossed in a story, and I’m floored by how good it feels to witness it.
But on the other days, on the everyday days, I’ve found it’s the moments I literally carve out that give me the freedom to embrace them.