childhood’s magic

This summer has been peppered with nostalgia. It’s one of my favorite things about being a mom: as my children experience things, I get to relive days that were simple, innocent, full of a special kind of awe and beauty.

Just today I caught a whiff of the humid summer air, in between rains on a very wet day, and was transported back (you know that whooshing style movie flashback) to my grandparents’ farm in the country, the air still and silent around me. I see Queen Anne’s lace dotting the borders of fields, and hear the gurgling creek, and remember the big backyard of the farmhouse that backed up to bins and sheds and simultaneously held both a sense of adventure and peace. I was reminded of my Grandma. And of being a kid, surrounded by siblings with not a care in the world.

Childhood is so vivid.

The sound of morning doves takes me back to our big green front porch on a hot summer morning, the day ahead full of potential. The glow of fireflies puts me back in my childhood bed, in front of the window on the second floor, counting the blinking bugs instead of going to sleep. The taste of sweet peas brings me back to our backyard garden, where we would just stand there in the dirt, bugs buzzing around us, and eat the peas straight from the plant.

I was thinking about why childhood tends to be so clear like this, and here’s what I concluded: the memories are sharp because the life is simple. When you don’t have to worry about bills to pay, meals to plan, deadlines to make, laundry to do, all you have to focus on is what’s in front of you. And what’s in front of you as a child is a world of wonder and a day full of play. All your needs are taken care of. There’s beauty in this. The complete trust a child has in his parents’ ability to look out for him enables him to truly enjoy his life.

The other afternoon I watched Simona sit at the dining room table as the afternoon sun streamed in through the windows. She was narrating an imaginary story, as she usually is, completely happy and oblivious to anything else but her game. I was struck by the thought that she is exactly where she is and nowhere else. She is not thinking about her to-do list and if she can somehow multi-task as she sits there. She’s not wishing she could be doing something else. She is perfectly happy to be a kid at home on a Thursday afternoon in the summer.

But somehow adulthood can get a bit cloudy. Maybe it doesn’t hold the vividness and clarity of childhood because we have become bogged down with duty, too busy to notice simple beauty, too jaded to be carefree. We have stuff to do. We don’t have time to just be.

The other day my mom came over to watch the girls, and as she came through the door, greeted by little footsteps and voices, she said, “Ah, it’s so nice to step into the world of a child.” And I had this moment where I felt kind of guilty because so often I just don’t think about it like that. I think about parenting, adulting, when I’m going to get my next break. I don’t put myself in my kids’ shoes very much. Selfish mom award, right over here. 

Being an adult is hard, and mothering is certainly no exception to that. I have lots of ‘bad’ days where I don’t think I have what it takes to do this intimidating, wonderful task that is raising a child. I try to balance it all—I do the dishes while listening to the story Simona is so intently trying to tell me, I squeeze in a load of laundry while the girls are playing in the basement, I play ‘tag’ with them in the house while actually picking up things to put away as I run by them. 

But lately I’ve found that my best times are the ones where i actually do step “into” childhood with my girls. I put down my phone. I get out of the “what’s next” mindset and banish the mental to-do list. I do nothing else but whatever simple thing they are doing. We watch two ants try to carry a dead beetle away. I wait as Helen bends down to play with the rubber in the sidewalk crack. I sit and watch Simona act out her “character movie” for the 37th time. This is a really hard thing to practice and I don’t it nearly as often as I should, because I’m a mom and therefore my brain is hardwired for multi-tasking, but I want to keep trying. 

Naturally there are always going to be essential things that need to get done for the health and happiness of your family (you can’t ignore laundry and grocery shopping and cleaning forever), and your children need you to do those things probably almost as much as they need you to spend time with them (though they may or may not realize it). I’m only here to remind myself (oh, and you too, if you’re reading) to try to see childhood again for what it is. To not forget it’s simplicity and how the small things are actually the big things. To once in awhile stop trying to avoid or clean up the mess and get right into it.

teaching children

Disclaimer: My husband is an extremely wonderful parent and teaches our children in a beautiful way, and I sincerely thank God for him all the time because I feel like anything that is good or that will be good about my kids comes from him, but for purposes of this article I am talking about my parenting skills alone.

I was at the pediatrician with the girls the other day and had some sort of sickening realization: I’m responsible for teaching my kids, like, a BUNCH of stuff.

Potty training alone was (is) terrifying. I was like, “man, if I don’t do this, no one will,” and that thought, for the baby of a family, is scary and new. But then realizing that I’m solely in charge of teaching them the basics of life, like how to clean up after themselves, wash their hands properly, get dressed, do chores, be a polite human being, that sort of thing…it’s a lot to think about. And I’m not even into the teen years when you actually have to coach them on big life decisions and things like HOW TO DRIVE. I’m in the little stuff. What is wrong with me?

So this realization at the doctor’s office came because he was asking me if Simona is recognizing any letters and I was like, uh, wait…SHOULD SHE BE? IS THIS SOMETHING I’M SUPPOSED TO DO? CAN I PHONE A FRIEND? I’LL GET MY SISTER TO DO IT. 

That’s not actually what I said. What I said was, “well…we’re still working on that,” or something similarly ambiguous. Then we rushed home and cracked the preschool workbook and I told her we ain’t moving from this spot until she identifies an “A.” 

Kidding, kind of. But we did restart home “school” with a vengeance, which basically means 10-15 minutes of working on letters and stuff before she gets to watch her tablet. Bribery, I tell you. I’m really painting a great picture of myself as a mom, aren’t I?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m the youngest of five kids. Okay that’s not the secret. The secret is that I never much cared for watching children. Some people call it babysitting, I think, but given a choice between that and housecleaning, I would choose the cleaning job every time. Kids terrified me. They still do, sometimes, but less so. But I think it had to be because it was never my responsibility to take care of someone younger than myself. I was the youngest, the baby that was being watched. I only had to worry about my needs, or something like that. 

So growing up, I had this sense that things would just be taken care of. Usually by someone other than myself. If there was something that needed to be planned, or fixed, I was confident that a sister or brother would do it. So flash forward to being a mom, and I’m looking around for someone else to do the dirty work, and realizing that hey it’s pretty much up to me. Cue personal growth (hopefully). 

I forgot to mention that after our little doctor visit, I googled “when should kids be able to identify letters?” and it said somewhere between age 3 and 4 and I was like “phew, we have 2 months to learn THE ENTIRE ALPHABET.” But then I was reading on some message board (not usually a good idea) and there were all these moms saying that their kids could identify all 26 letters at age 23 months, along with the 6 bonus letters that aren’t in the alphabet, and that they focused on teaching letters every day, along with shapes and colors, and so on and so on, until I stuck my head inside a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and cried chocolate tears. 

Once upon a time I dreamily thought I’d homeschool my children. I mean, my mom did it for the five of us, and it seemed easy enough (HA!). Besides, public school seems so scary these days. I like to feel a little bit in control (bigger HA).  And homeschool gives you and your kids such freedom to learn at your own pace and in your own way, I mean…ideal, right?

But now I realize in a new way how amazing my mom is. Like, next level amazing. And I know that, barring a miracle, I likely will not be homeschooling my children. I don’t think I have the patience or the demeanor (or the selflessness?) for it.

The other thing that kept coming up on that message board was the saying that “every kid is different” and that they learn at their own pace, and each one has a different learning style, etc. Which is somewhat comforting. I guess I just need to find out how Simona learns best. I mean, maybe she is way more advanced in other areas and she just doesn’t have space in her brain to think about regular learning. She is too busy living in “character land”, with her eight imaginary friends, one of whom she is married to, and they have a child together named Bono. I’m not kidding.

Maybe I need to crack down. 

Maybe I need to make her focus when I’m trying to teach her. She always starts drawing a picture on the side, or coming up with a story while I’m trying to cement a letter in her brain. But she’s three. Should she be focusing on book learning, or should she just be learning as she plays? I mean, she already knows so much and I haven’t sat down with her to “educate” her. I’ve just played with her. Isn’t that childhood though? Children are learning constantly, whether or not we realize it, whether or not we try to teach them. 

Simona is amazing. Sure, maybe she doesn’t know her alphabet yet, but she has a stellar imagination, and she’s sweet and loving and funny and loves to dance. Plus, she’s an expert on YouTube videos. If you ever want to know how to paint a My Little Pony into a Cinderella Princess, she could pretend to tell you how. Simona’s brain is completely unique, astoundingly different even from that of her sister. Helen might know letters by age 2. Who knows? It would be a miracle, because she gets even less one-on-one playtime than her sister did. (I used to do some really cool activities with Simona, make projects and crafts and forts…and with poor Helen it’s like ‘here, hope you can figure out this jigsaw by yourself while I insert this coffee IV into my arm and clean the kitchen.’) But that’s just the beautiful thing about all of us being made differently. 

So maybe I’m behind on this whole ‘teaching’ thing. Maybe I’m too lazy or selfish. But I’m going to keep trying—trying to teach her the ‘basics’, trying to enjoy her for exactly who she is, trying not to make her feel ‘less than’ if she hasn’t figured something out yet, trying to recognize the amazing potential that she has in this world and get her to do the same. 

mom guilt

I feel like I end every day with a lot of guilt (and, consequently, usually a large glass of wine).  

I raised my voice too much (something I thought I’d never do.)
I lost my patience.
I let them watch too much TV (something else I thought I wouldn’t do).
I didn’t get them outside enough (or at all).
I didn’t teach them enough.
I taught them too much. (JUST KIDDING about that one.)
I didn’t pay enough attention to them because I was trying to get other things done.
OR
I didn’t get enough things done because I was with them all day. 

See? I can’t win. Either way, and no matter what I do, there’s guilt to be felt if I let myself feel it. It’s nonsensical. Why do I do this to myself every day? I know that it’s wrong.

There’s not even time for me to feel guilty about my eating choices anymore. It’s just whatever I can stuff in my mouth is OKAY. I forgive myself for that, I guess. Maybe I shouldn’t, but that’s a topic for another time: self-care. Moving on. 

I’m just not that nice sometimes. Okay? You heard it here first. Sometimes when Simona makes an honest mistake, and says, so apologetically, “I’m sorry, mommy”, before I even react at all, I wonder if it’s because she thinks (or has experienced that) I’ll react negatively. And I kick myself. Am I that mean? I want to maintain a household where it’s okay to make mistakes, because, hello, I make enough for all of us.

I feel like I spend half the time making mistakes and the other half trying hard to be overly fun and nice to make up for my shortcomings. It’s a vicious and frustrating cycle. I feel like I’m a bad example to my girls. Children learn from example, right? Our voices become their inner voices, right? I don’t want their inner voices to speak to them through gritted teeth. I want those voices to be kind to them, gentle with their mistakes, encouraging them to try again. We need a world where people have inner voices that don’t constantly berate and condemn.

But don’t we all do this to ourselves every day? Aren’t we, as mothers, supposed to be the most amazing people in the world, and yet we are the ones knocking ourselves down the most? If there is a mom out there who doesn’t experience this guilt, I would love to meet her. I’m not saying that in a snarky way. I’m saying maybe I could learn something from her. Maybe she has learned what we all need to learn—that we can’t do it all. We’re human. We can forgive ourselves and we can try again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that. Because mistakes are how we learn.

You know what else I end every day with? Besides a messy house? Grace. Forgiveness. It’s there if I can remember to take hold of it. I just forget sometimes that it’s so readily available to me. And if I would just add gratitude to that list too, maybe there wouldn’t be room for guilt. Maybe I can instead look back on the day and see the laughter, the growth (in all of us), the fullness of this life. It’s certainly not an empty life, and I think that is something to be thankful for. That, and the fact that tomorrow is a new beginning.