The Fight Against Time

Time is a sweet ally and a cunning foe for a parent.

One of my friends says that every day of her life feels like Groundhog Day. She has a 2 year old, and every morning they wake up at the same time, eat the same breakfast, watch the same TV show, and walk the same circuitous route through the neighborhood with a pause at an overpass to watch trains rattle by at dizzying speed. “Trains!” her son yells, as if he’s never seen them before. Every afternoon he eats the same lunch off the same plate and goes down for a nap, and she gets out the broom and paper towels and starts cleaning up the mess he made in the previous couple of hours. And then it’s time for her to work because she’s also a children’s pastor. Of course, she loves her life and chooses it. She does not feel victimized. But it’s the sameness that turns time into a turtle crawl of repetition and makes almost all moms ask, “What day is it today?”

Jack has a sweater. It’s a cute sweater made of fine gauge gray knit with stripes that swoop across the chest, just a little too small.  For some reason, in the depths of summer, he decided to come downstairs wearing the sweater. Every morning.

“Jack,” I would say when I saw him, wearing the sweater and orange basketball shorts, “it’s too hot to wear a sweater.”

“Why, Mom?” he would ask.

“When it’s hot outside, we wear clothes that are light and cover less of our bodies,” I explain. “We wear sweaters in the winter because they are warm and it’s very cold outside.”

“I’m cold,” he promptly says.

“Let’s go upstairs and pick out a different shirt,” I say.

“No, I want to wear the sweater! I’m not hot!” he insists.

Sometimes I give in until it’s time to go to the park. “Jack, it’s 98 degrees outside. Take off the sweater now.”

“Noooooooooo!!! I like this sweater! I want to wear the sweater!!!!!”

(Every morning.)

I’m sure you’ve heard many parents talk about how “the days are long but the years are short”?… Uh, yes. It has never been so hard for me to get through the day, but all the repetitive moments do add up to “Oh my god, he’s four?” and a burst of pride when I see the spindly Crayola-red letters on his homework paper. So I’m stuck in heaven and hell. And to all you people I see in the grocery store who tell me to “enjoy every minute” or “I remember when my kids were that age. I miss it so much,” or “Those were the good old days” with a tear in your eye, you just make me feel guilty. Because no matter what you say, it does not make it easier for me to love all the little moments. The pace of life gets to me. Everything that takes the normal person seconds to do can take hours or never gets done at all.

But can you remember how time felt when you were a child? Children live in the now and they live for pleasure. We were ignorant of time or the nature of time, how fleeting it is, how onerous. Growing up was a lifetime . All we cared about was how fast we could run. How far out our dresses swirled when we twirled. We cried so hard when our best friend hurt our feelings because that was all there was.  The way we told time was through lost teeth, a first sleepover, a new pet, a bike with streamers on the handlebars, a favorite book. Oh yeah, and Christmas and birthdays. We were unapologetic hedonists. We lived hard.

The way we live now is so squeezed and pulled and pushed that it seems like we are living in a sliver of reality. Time demands so much, and we put so many demands on it. Are we actually present in our bodies as we go through the motions of our day? Or are we somewhere else?

I wonder if we can recover our values of play and pleasure. Can we sometimes enter into time with our children? I mean, it won’t work to forget the calendar or the clock. But in some of those moments that seem never-ending, that are stuck on repeat, it could be possible to free ourselves from expectation and constant productivity, and let our senses do the work. What is happening here? What is my body telling me? Who are these children and what joy do I find in their presence? What needs to be said or expressed? My spiritual director told me that telling your children, every day, “I’m so thrilled that you are my son/daughter,” will feed them for the rest of their lives.

We’re in it, parents, every repetitive, irritating minute of it. So once or twice, let’s just press pause and… revel.

My Mother the Superhero

Did you know that being a parent makes you kind of a superhero?

 It happened years ago. My mom was standing at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables with a large knife when she saw, out the front kitchen window, a sight that sent chills down her spine. Some little children from down the street were playing at the end of our driveway. They had some kind of mental disabilities and often played at our house, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the rocks, gravel and small stones raining down on them from across the street, where a teenage boy was lobbing them from behind a tree.

Instantly, my mom sprang into action. She raced out the front door without pulling off her apron or taking her hair out of its curlers. Across the street, her feet pounded the asphalt fiercely. She ran up the driveway and crunched acorns up to the front porch. The teenage boy had vanished into thin air, leaving his rocks encircling the handicapped kids like a moat.

My mom pushed the doorbell and rapped on the door at the same time. It took about five seconds for the door to open and the teenage boy’s mother to appear. I don’t know what my mother said, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “Your son is throwing rocks at innocent children” and said in the voice that I knew so well, the “You are in the wrong and I’m beyond reasoning with” voice. The whole time she was speaking, one of her arms was tucked behind her back. It wasn’t until she turned to leave that either of the women realized my mother was clutching a large, sharp kitchen knife in her hand. She had completely forgotten to put it down. 

Later, the neighbor told other neighbors that she had been scared. It wasn’t every day that she was threatened with a knife by one of her own neighbors.  I never knew this story until recently when I was home for Christmas, but I loved it when I heard it. My mother, the hero.

If you’re a parent, you know that this happens. You are just doing what you normally do, chopping vegetables, when all of a sudden you see a child in trouble. It might be your child or another child who is vulnerable and alone. And before you know it, your cape is on. You spring into action. You are rescuing a child in need. It might not even be a child. When I became a parent, it opened up a part of my heart that was previously hardened or just oblivious. I immediately began wanting to protect and defend the helpless. I think that being a parent makes you a hero in lots of little, run-across-the-street-with-a-knife ways. You are suddenly tuned in to a different frequency that only babies and dogs and maybe angels can hear.

 Later, when our kids get older, it will get more tricky. Because as parents, we shouldn’t always swoop in and save our children from every playground bully. Sometimes we have to stand back and let them struggle and fight their own fight. I know those days are coming. Right now, though, we can be heroes all we want. We can spend our days fighting bad guys, stuck zippers, parts of toys that won’t work, and tangled hair. We can zoom in and vanquish the monsters in the dark. We can quell injustice with a word or a look.

I love this quote about heroism from one of my favorite books, The Art of Family: Rituals, Imagination, and Everyday Spirituality. It really gets to the heart of why every parent is a hero.

 “…in loving your children, you are practicing the profoundest spirituality. In this you are heroic, and there are days when you know it. You know you’ve been stretched to the limit, faced insanity, wept in the closet, physically found an entirely new level of exhaustion. It’s called sacrifice. No one else, except maybe, maybe your partner, will ever know what you’ve done. No one else will ever guess how hard it has been. No one will thank you for it. Even when your children have their children, they will only vaguely realize what you’ve done—they will be too frantic caring for their own kids. Yet you do it. Now, that’s heroism.”