I knew that as a parent I’d be facing physically and emotionally messy times. And I knew that I’d have to adjust by, say, not expecting the dishes to be put away every night or by letting the pretzels stay under the couch for another day. I thought if I didn’t wash my hair as often, it didn’t matter since no one will be looking at me; instead, they will be admiring my gorgeous baby girl. I say “I knew” there’d be tough moments, but that’s not entirely true. I only “knew” on an intellectual level, as in my brain registered that parenting would bring on a little bit of chaos, but my brain also assumed it could deal with it because I’d be constantly buoyed by feelings of love and gratitude for my baby.
Certainly I did (and still do) experience an almost paralyzing affection for my child. In fact, there are times when I stop in my tracks to catch my breath because this intense loving feeling peaks when I least expect it. But what I didn’t know is that no matter how much sweetness and light fills my heart and my home, there are times when the messy parts eclipse everything.
One day my 1 ½ year-old daughter and I were on the playground digging in the sandbox. She had wiggled out of her shoes and one sock and was up to her ankles in the sand. Her hands were everywhere at once, like little hummingbirds flying from the sand, to her mouth, to her toes, to the stray shovel, to her mouth, to her hair, to me. I checked my watch and mentally calculated how much time we had to get home, take a shower (me) and a bath (her), eat some lunch, clean up, do the laundry, and have a snack before her next nap. Suddenly overwhelmed, I scooped her up and jogged home.
We raced through our chores, not really enjoying the bath or the food. When we were clean and fed and I stopped to catch my breath, we still had close to two hours before nap time! I was tired and cranky from rushing, and baby was bored and antsy. I realized that we actually had the time to explore the playground a bit longer, and we could have strolled home, making a game of cleaning up and eating. I could have savored our time together instead of treating it like another item on my to-do list. I could have focused on the moment at hand instead of the hours ahead. Being present with your child means paying attention to where you are in the here and now, not where you’ll be in ten minutes, two hours, or next week. It means being mindful of your child’s immediate needs, not what she may need in the near future.
So, how could I have been more present with my daughter that day? To begin, instead of keeping track of how much sand was collecting on my baby girl, I could have marveled at her curiosity and playfulness. I could have reminded myself that a sandbox is a wonderful sensory experience for one so young and a little dirt won’t hurt her. Instead of hurrying home, we could have talked about what we saw on the streets and in the sky; we could have counted taxis. And when we got home, I could have relaxed because we had plenty of time to clean up and eat before her nap.
There are bound to be more messy “sandbox” moments, but now I welcome them. I see them as a challenge and a gift. They are an opportunity to live in the moment and be truly aware of my experience. And when I notice the pretzel crumbs blended in with the rug, I will opt to check in with my baby before pulling out the vacuum. If she needs me to tune in to her instead, well, the pretzels will just have to wait another day!
Samara Kamenecka is a freelance writer, editor, translator, and copywriter based in Madrid. When she’s not chained to her computer, she likes to explore the city with her boyfriend, daughter, and dog. She blogs about kids and parenting over at Tiny Fry.