I was working on this blog post when I heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. There is no adequate response. I have no right to try to address the pain of any of those involved and I have no great wisdom to offer about how the community or the nation should respond. This devastating event certainly raises issues that we need to deal with as a society, including issues of gun violence and adequate mental health treatment, but I don’t have the expertise or authority to offer my opinions on these issues in the immediate aftermath.
The response I do have in the immediate aftermath is one of grief as a parent. My heart breaks for all of the parents affected, especially the parents who lost young children but also the father of the gunman, the parents of the school staff, and the parents who now need to help their children understand what happened in their school. I do not know their pain, but my personal reaction to this crisis is experienced as a parent. I am hugging my children and telling them how much I love them and thanking God for one more day with them. And I am also feeling even more deeply the weight of my job as a parent. While my struggles of recent days are revealed as trivial by this tragedy, the lessons I am trying to learn from them are not. And so, I still offer these reflections about parenting because I have been reminded just how important it is for me to thoughtfully embrace each day I get to do this important job.
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Three days ago the munchkins and I made our third intercontinental trip as a three-some. While I would have naturally preferred it if my husband could have taken the extra week off of work to join this leg of the trek, I did not approach the trip with trepidation. After all, it is the third time I have travelled from Milan to California as a solo parent and I am fairly confident in my abilities. My anticipation of the roughly 19-hour journey was perhaps cavalier, but I try to hold the parenting philosophy that motherly anxiety usually breeds anxious behavior in children and that expecting the best generally produces more positive results.
I had not considered, however, how such positive expectations might impact my reaction to the challenges of the trip. To be fair to Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster, they behaved really well. There were no screaming tantrums. There was no refusal to walk, or to wait, or to get in the stroller. They sat in their seats with minimal excursions to the bathroom. They watched their videos and ate the food I had brought for them. They played together or separately and were generally un-disruptive to the passengers seated around us. In short, they confirmed my confident pre-flight declarations to friends that “they are great travelers, so I’m not worried.”
The problem was me. I was so relaxed in my confidence about their travel ease that I wanted the trip to proceed as though I were not responsible for two children under the age of 6. I wanted to sit back and watch my movies uninterrupted by bathroom trips. I wanted to enjoy my pre-flight champagne without the responsibility to prevent juice spills in the seat next to me. I wanted to eat my meal without the inconvenience of shimmying under my open tray table three times to open a stubborn zipper/locate a lost toy/select a new inflight entertainment option for my daughter seated across the aisle. Although I cringe to think about it now, I wanted to focus on my own entertainment and comfort and just not be bothered with entertaining and meeting the needs of my two precious children.
Looking back on that flight now, especially in the light of what happened in Connecticut less than 2 days later, I am overcome with shame, because my response to their requests for my attention was one of annoyance. I had the privilege of spending more than 13 hours strapped next to them on two airplanes (in addition to the 5 hours of driving, and moving-through and waiting in airports). 13 hours of time during which I had no competing responsibilities. No dishes to do; no laundry to fold; no class representative e-mails to send; no Christmas presents to wrap; not even any blog entries to work on. In this season of incredible busy-ness, I had the equivalent of one full waking day of uninterrupted time with my children. And I wasted it!
I had packed their rucksacks full of in-flight entertainment options: books, and coloring sheets, and stickers, and games. They were activities that they could do on their own, but they were also activities that I do not get the chance to sit and do with them nearly as often as I would like. Despite the fact that I “do not work outside the home,” there never seem to be enough hours in the day to just enjoy my children. There is always something that needs to get done. And so, I have come to think of sticker books and paint-with-water sheets as child-minders. They are fun activities that my children enjoy and that provide a more nurturing alternative than television. And so they have become my tools of distraction. When I am busy testing the emergency calling chain for my daughter’s class, or filing out insurance reimbursement forms, I can give them some stickers and paper and hope for 10 minutes of distraction-free time to work.
I am not saying that providing activities for my children represents poor parenting. I am so glad to have the resources to be able to stock a “craft cupboard” full of activities that entertain my children and encourage creative activity. But I have come to realize in the past few days that I too often lose out on precious memories with my children for the simple reason that they are such good kids. They don’t often throw tantrums to demand attention. They can sit and play quietly when Mommy is “too busy.” They will simply look at the pictures in their books, or stick to the ones my daughter can read, because Mommy doesn’t have time to read to them right now. And so, I have come to expect relatively low demands from them, and to think of this as a good thing.
My children are happy, and well-adjusted, and have the skills of self-soothing and independent play. These are good things. They make my job as their mother an even greater blessing than it would be otherwise. AND, they make it too easy for me to ignore their eagerness to spend time with me. Heaven only know how much longer they will offer me that treasure. Princess Imagination has already taken to shutting her door so that she can have “some time alone.” The Gigglemonster is discovering how great he is at making friends, and at some point in the future I know that friends will supplant me as his preferred companions. And any moment could be their last or mine. Their pleas to “read me a book Mommy,” or “help me color the doggie,” or “get this sticker off, so I can stick it on your sweater” are precious offerings. They are opportunities to interact with my children, and watch their minds and imaginations develop, and share in their process of discovering the world. My response should be one of joy and gratitude and not one of annoyance for interruptions of my agenda.
So, for the last few days I have been working on taking advantage of the little moments (hence the delay in this posting). My efforts are quite imperfect. Busy-ness is a difficult habit to break, but so worth it. What a joy to read the race car book three times in a row, or help Princess Imagination make a sparkly headband, or just have a tickle-fight. I am blessed with good kids who can entertain themselves when I don’t have time for them, but time is a blessing as well. My Christmas wish is to appreciate each moment of it.
A few of the moments of our first days of Christmas vacation with my family are captured below