Saturday, February 26, 2005

Living Each Moment

Over at So Close, Tertia asked for people to share their regrets about parenting, the choices or non-choices they wish they could do differently. Quite a large majority of people wrote to say that they regretted worrying so much, about everything from toddler milestones to grammar school grades to their own bad days. One person shared with Tertia an article about motherhood regrets published by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek a few years ago. Quindlen made quite a few claims about her own anxieties, her deferral to experts, and her wish that she'd just been more laid back.

Quindlen's take-away line was, "But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did NOT LIVE IN THE MOMENT ENOUGH. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs." Quindlen presents this regret, this key insight into the value and meaning of motherhood, as if it weren't available to her in the expert testimonies (Brazelton, Spock, Leach) that she read. I'm not sure that Quindlen read her Spock very closely, if she doesn't remember Spock's central message: "You know more than you think you do. Relax." What I do know is that every recent generation of parents has arrived at the bittersweet realization that their life passed them by while they were attending to other things.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town in 1938: its dramatic climax comes when Emily, from beyond the grave, tries fruitlessly to get her mother to see her, to be fully in the moment, and not to let life slip by in meaningless small things. Erma Bombeck wrote, by my count, eight books about motherhood, and every single one of them featured at least one chapter laughing at and mourning the passage of time, and regretting the way that children do indeed "grow up!" just as their mothers snap at them to do. Julia at Uncommon Misconception has already succumbed to motherhood's primal grief, the bittersweet embrace of time's passage, and her daughter is all of one month old.

Steven Sondheim never had children, but in Into the Woods, the witch sings: "Children can only grow from something you love, to something you lose."

Parents know that time is passing. Mothers know that today's petty troubles cloud their ability to notice and be with their kids. This isn't a blazing insight of a new generation of enlightened people. The question isn't, why don't we notice that life is what happens while we're making other plans? The question is, why doesn't it make a difference, when we do notice it?

Why hasn't it occurred to anyone that some of the mania of "overparenting" arises precisely from the knowledge that every moment and every experience is both precious and fleeting? Maybe mothers obsess over preschools and fiddle with the paper plates because they know that they were too distracted to sit and read the book, or too bored to play Barbies, or too tired to go for the walk. Too many moments are already gone, so we drive ourselves to create the perfect future moments that will persist, in memory, in photos, in life. Should we recognize that the perfect moments are the laid-back ones, the picnics on the front lawn or the giggles over a silly movie? Okay, yes, we should. But it's hard to work up the energy for those moments, some time. Give us a bit of a break, please.

Can you think of anything that would demand more perfect mothering, than the demand to be truly in the moment as much as possible with your children, when you're with them? Is anything harder than transcending the thoughts and emotions and distractions of our ever-chattering minds, so that we can dwell in the here and now? There's a reason why Buddhists refer to their practice as a discipline, and say that it takes hard medicine to achieve enlightenment.

Sometimes I wish that mothers whose children were grown would stop telling mothers whose children are small to stop and smell the roses. I'll be happy to do that, if you'll come over and mop my floors, cook my meals, and wash my clothes. Unless you're prepared to make that offer, shut up -- because telling me to stop fixating on the irrelevant and live in the transcendent is starting to get on my nerves.


Laura said...

What a great post! My mother in law is always telling me that and she gave me a sappy poem with the passing of time as its theme. I was just thinking today how much I let the house go because I was both spending time with my kids and taking time for myself. Which means that tomorrow or the next day, time will be devoted to the house that takes away from the kids. I'm sad when I look back at pictures of my 9 year old as a baby, but what can I do about it? Nothing. I did what I could. No, I wasn't always in the moment, but there were enough times when I was.

Julia S said...

I have always been vaguely annoyed by that sentiment as well. The Treasure These Days because Soon They Shall Pass camp. It seems sort of defeating, like the best parts are always in the past.

As I recall I was told this about high school and, you know, high school was fine and I enjoyed it but I am not sitting here wishing I could go back. College? Excellent! I had an excellent time. Do I need to do it again? Nope.

So Patrick is two and a half now and I love it. I loved it when he was a newborn too. I have no doubt that we will enjoy 8 and 14. And some day he will grow up and I hope I am so busy planning the trip to New Zealand that Steve and I will take ALONE that I forget to cry over his little shoes.

Given a choice, I prefer happiness.

This was not your point, I know, but I kinda ran with it.

Anonymous said...

That is one thing that also struck me. if every one is telling me to relax and enjoy it more, every one is saying they wish they hadn't worried so much, then could it be possible that it is impossible not to worry, that is just how it is? as you say, it is easy to look back and say that was the best part. in the mean time you live in the reality of the moment.

but one thing i did take away from it, is that the shit times wont last for ever. if they dont sleep tonight, they will sleep some day.

kate is not drinking her bottles well at the moment, and instead of freaking out i thought 'she wont starve, if her weight gain is a little down for the next week, that is not the end of the world'

i think it is about being realistic.


LisaV said...

I get wistful about my children growing up, it's not only because I miss my babies. I see how fast the days, even years of their lives are passing, it's a reminder of how fleeting is my time too. I never was really aware of how quickly time was going until I had these living yard sticks.
Many of those days that I remember wistully were accompanied moments that I couldn't wait to get through. Getting up during the night, changing diapers, potty training. Tantrums, tantrums, tantrums. I can reason or at least intimidate my older into behaving.
When I tell someone not to worry, I mean cut yourself a break. That's all I know, in the end, it seems to work out.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you somewhat on this. Although I realise it is impossible to instruct other people to appreciate each moment, I do think it is worth reminding them and ourselves to try and arrange our lives so that most moments are worth appreciating. I didn't become a mother till I was in my 40s, by which time I was very aware of the passage of time and my own mortality. I have tried to organise my life as a mother so that I would have as few regrets as possible in future years. Actually, that's now how I try to organise my life in general. This perspective was not truly meaningful to me until I was 40 - maybe that's why it's usually older people reminding younger ones to savour each moment. (I can't imagine a 70 year old reminding another 70 year old that time passes quickly!)

Anonymous said...

I can't really comment on the mom thing. But, yes, you were right! You outed me-- it was satire. Thanks for your good wishes (no sarcasism this time.)

Middle Way

Naomi said...

I had never thought about the pressure inherent in the advice to treasure each moment, but I think you're absolutely right.

I was the very FIRST person to tell Tertia to worry less, but I checked and am relieved to say that I didn't suggest that she treasure each moment -- only to worry less about making some un-recoverable mistake. When your babies are new there are all sorts of well-meaning people who will tell you not to get them started with bad habits that are harder to break later. And this is silly, because much of the time it would actually be harder to avoid those "bad habits" to begin with than to break them later, and it's not like your child came with an instruction manual so that you'd know which habits, for your child, would be a total bear to break, and which things they would naturally outgrow. It's not so much that I wish that I'd treasured every minute, because I think, frankly, that this is humanly impossible except possibly for certainly highly-trained Buddhist monks. But I wish I'd worried less about bad habits, because it stressed me out, and this stuff tends to work itself out in the end.

Emily said...

I love what you said here, and Julia's comments too.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with the anonymous 40-something mom. That may be because I am also a 40-something mom (my babies were born when I was 40). I was very much aware of how quickly time passes, and how fragile life is and how you simply don't know what's in store. No doubt these feelings were made even stronger with the death of my sister during my pregnancy, a death I could not grieve because each sob gave me contractions (I think this is why I developed IC). Anyways, I have strived so hard to not have any regrets, or as few as possible, with my children. It's the simple moments, the unplanned ones, that are absolute magic.

Just last night the children & I were rolling around on the floor screaming with laughter. I wet my pants from laughing so hard, and from trying to get out from under a collective weight of about 90-pounds of happy children who were merrily bouncing on my chest. Eventually I stopped trying to get up because it occured to me that some day they won't want to sit on my chest, some day they won't hurl themselves at me in delight, some day they won't wriggle their bodies onto my hands and scream out: TICKLE-TICKLE-TICKLE-TUMMY!!! I chose to be in the moment, memorizing each child's smell, the silkiness of their hair, the heat of their bodies, the look of uninhibited joy in their eyes, the sound of all our squeals and laughter mixing together.

I refuse to wish away their childhood, dreaming of the day when I don't have to change diapers, don't have to cut up their food, don't have to try and interpret their babbling, don't have to wash their hair, don't have to cut their nails. "To everything there is a season..."

To me the only thing annoying about the "enjoy it now..." advice is the assumption on the part of the advice giver is that I presently do NOT enjoy the now, that I do NOT live for the moment. Nothing could be further from the truth.