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.