People sometimes ask me what it’s like having a younger child in my life again, and how it’s different this time. My daughters are 25 and 20, and my sweetheart’s daughter Pippa is not quite 8. I have to say, I feel pretty lucky. She’s funny, and loving, and full of beans. I have less responsibility — I leave most of the discipline and limit-setting to her amazing mother while I get to do the fun stuff. But still, it’s all pretty familiar. The main difference is that this time I’m more aware.
When you’re a young parent, time contracts and expands simultaneously. The current crises seem to stretch out to infinity, obstructing and obliterating any view of a happier future. At the same time, your kid’s developmental landmarks fly by like race cars at the Indy 500. They laugh, they crawl, they walk, they talk, and before you know it, they’re getting on a school bus and you can’t remember the last time they fell asleep in your arms.
I don’t know if it’s the calm that comes with experience, or the fatigue that comes with age, but time seems more stable these days. Instead of lunging back and forth between wild fluctuations of forever and never again, I sometimes plant my feet in the solid now.
Over Labor Day weekend, we went backpacking in the Sierras. One morning, we all woke up a little colder and a little sooner than we had intended, and the three of us bundled up together in our hammock. Pippa and her mom fell back to sleep, but I lay awake. I felt their bodies relax and grow heavy, pressing against me like warm bags of sand. Their chests rose and fell in slow, even breaths. Their eyelids fluttered with dreams. Across the lake, sunrise tipped the treetops with gold, and wisps of mist drifted up off the water like ghostly spirits pulling free. I remember thinking that the moment wouldn’t last, and using every sense I had to take it all the way in.
Years ago I had a patient who began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease in her mid-80s. She’d lived a full, satisfying life, and she faced her failing memory with remarkable grace and equanimity. One day, she told me this joke:
A woman gets into the passenger seat of a car driven by her elderly mother, who isn’t as sharp as she used to be. At one point, the car speeds through a red light without even slowing down. Not wanting to offend her mother, or sound accusatory, the woman says nothing. But at the next intersection, her mother speeds through another red light. The woman decides she has to say something.
“Mom, do you realize you just ran through two stoplights in a row?”
“Oh my,” her mother says, “am I driving?”
One day, I asked how she was feeling about her dementia, and the changes she was going through. She told me she had no regrets. She had tried to get as much as she could out of life, moment by moment, and for the most part she’d succeeded. She said she couldn’t ask for more.
We tend to think of life as a series of big chunks: infancy, childhood, adolescence, career, marriage, parenthood, middle age, old age. But the functional unit of life is much smaller than that. It’s now, and now, and now again. As many beads as that strand will contain in the end, we can only string them one at a time.
Children know this instinctively. It’s their complete immersion in now that makes them enchanting, and exasperating, and unexpectedly wise. I see this in Pippa all the time. One moment she’s giggling with delight, and the next she’s wailing and gnashing her teeth as if the world is coming to an end. Then, every so often, she says something off the top of her head that makes me open my eyes and reconsider what I think I know. It’s a mountain road with a lot of hairpin turns, but I buckle up, lean into the curves, and try to enjoy the ride. I know this won’t last forever. I don’t want to miss a thing.
So I guess that’s what I’ve learned. Sometimes parenting can make you feel like a helpless passenger, but don’t let it. Yes, you’re moving fast. Yes, you’re a little out of control. But in the end, you’re still behind the wheel.
Jeff Lee knows about cars, but strictly metaphorically, in Seattle.