Sitting in waiting rooms or on the sidelines of sports fields, the tat-tat-tat of texts reminds me that we have lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness.
My parents were also Energizer bunnies, passing the need for constant movement on to me as I have to my children. It’s as if our family feared Newton’s laws of motion literally meant if we stopped, we might never get started again.
Writer Benjamin Hoff uses Rabbit, in the Tao of Pooh, to caution against constant busyness. Rabbit is always in a hurry, being a “Bisy Backson” as they call it, and these Backsons are forever finding things to do to kill their time. Swimming lessons, art classes, gymnastics, ice-skating, tap dancing and mommy and me music.
We fill our days like glass candy jars—to the brim with shape and color, but often little thought to substance. Like Rabbit, I’ve officially become that parent. The parent who frets over her child’s ability to be neater in finger painting and show more focus on her kicking and bubble blowing in the pool. The mom who would subject her child to preschool questionnaires that ask 3-year-olds what their goals are, when the answer is simply not to wet their princess panties before lunch.
What is behind all this speeded up, super-achiever, activity overload anyway? Are we creating capacity or maxing it out? And who is it for? Is my daughter begging to swim like Missy Franklin or dreaming about being the next “flying squirrel” like Gabby Douglas before kindergarten? Or are we trying to compete with the successes of the neighbors’ children or maybe even living a vicarious “do over” for the achievements we fell short of in our own youth?
In high school, my mother came home from the department store and handed me a shopping bag. It was my prom dress. She had selected the style, tried it on and brought it home. Easy peasy. “You don’t like shopping anyway,” I was told. Probably so, but still. Shouldn’t I have at least had some say in selecting my own gown? Even now when asked what my favorite color is, I sometimes wonder if I should call my mom and ask, “Who am I?” Did I ever actually take time to explore this question or was it just answered for me?
Without calling Dr. Freud, I wonder if I too am doomed to paint my daughters’ canvas or will I dare to hand over the brush? Watching my oldest glue colorful candy bits to a gingerbread house with frosting one Sunday afternoon, it’s everything I can do to not act as the general contractor in the cookie house design and construction. Even when my oldest daughter gets dressed in the morning, I cringe hearing, “Does this match?” knowing that perhaps like my own mother, I have not allowed free expression in the wardrobe department either.
Amidst our frenetic schedule of activities, I decided to slow down and look, to really observe, my first-born daughter (her sister still too young to have become molded yet). At 3, Morgan is a funny kid. She paints double fisted. She loves to dress up and sing Annie show tunes at the top of her lungs. She knows where her spleen and uvula are located. Her favorite shape is the hexagon. For Christmas, she wanted a purple starfish that talks (you know… like in Nemo). She is a fish in the pool and smiles underwater, which is rather creepy. But I noticed something else. All the bribery in the world wasn’t going to force her into potty training until she decided she was ready. My independent-minded daughter needs to do things on her own timeframe, in her own, unique way.
“Morgan is just Morgan,” the daycare provider at the gym remarked when I was fretting about some developmental milestone or another. Maybe I would sleep better if I learned to accept her capacity to be herself—to be Morgan—whatever that ends up meaning, and not try to make her into a mini-me.
With this in mind, I am going to try very hard to take a step back and be the cheerleader, rather than the player. Stop hovering, helicopter parenting. Loosen the reins. I can guide my free-spirited toddler, but I shouldn’t dictate what my little girl will ultimately become. Capacity may be about forming the vessel and then allowing them the freedom to fill it.
Just like author Richard Russo said in a recent interview about his new memoir Elsewhere, “I wanted my mother in my life, just not all the time.” My daughters may need a time out—and if I’m lucky, they’ll give me one too.