in the Moment
parent knows those flashes from the future: The split seconds
when your baby's or toddler's face or voice or mannerism betrays
a hint, whether real or not, of what your child will be like
in five, ten, or twenty years. "Four going on thirteen," we
say sometimes during a particularly trying moment. Other times
we just stop and shake our heads to make sure time isn't running
away with us quite that badly.
Less talked about, but I expect as common, are the moments
when you catch flashes of yourself as a parent in five, ten,
or twenty years. Sure, in our tired times we new parents joke
about empty nests or the day when we pack our kids off to
sleepaway camp. But I mean the moments when you get a memo
about what your next challenge is going to be—the times when
you suddenly get a premonition of what impossible thing you
will need to learn next.
These flashes for me generally come when things are going
well and I'm most enjoying parenting. This week it has been
all about the holidays.
If you enjoy the winter holidays, as my family decidedly does,
introducing them to a toddler is a blast. Our daughter wakes
up each morning (and after each nap) asking "Is it a new day?"
because she wants to snap another felt ornament on our advent
calendar ("alendar calendar" to her). She hugs the Christmas
tree. She wants to take walks to see her favorite moving lit-up
reindeer contraptions in neighbors' yards.
Last Sunday, on the solstice, she painted a cardboard sun
and joined us in thinking of things to thank the sun for ("Thank
you sun for honey and bread!!"). She digs the song the "Little
Drummer Boy," will accompany anything with jingle bells, and
is quite sure Jesus has four dads (Joseph and the three kings,
natch. We have tried to explain otherwise, to no avail. It
would explain some things, I suppose).
Right now it's so easy. She's full of wonder anyway; everything
is new and exciting. Rituals make her feel like she has a
place in the world. Gatherings where people know the same
songs and characters make her feel like part of a community.
We have been consciously building a set of holiday observances
that include but are not centered around gift exchanges, and
she's been rewarding our efforts with enthusiasm at every
In fact, if we act excited about something, we have an 80
percent chance of her being excited too. I remember clearly
how last year, when she was one and a half, getting to eat
a cookie first thing in the morning and getting a gift of
a container of raisins that was under her control, to be eaten
at whatever pace she wanted, was enough to make a red-letter
This year, the simple little idea of shining our shoes on
Christmas Eve is so exciting she can barely wait and keeps
lobbying to do it earlier.
I think it was the shoes thing that made me realize: I am
in grave danger of trying to recapture this thrill, this sense
of being able to effortlessly offer my children wonder, every
December. I know that no matter how much she might continue
to like the holidays, it won't be like this again. But who
wouldn't want it to be?
Suddenly I had a flash of compassion for the parents escalating
their purchases each year or fighting to hold on to their
kids' belief in Santa one more season. Even if you're not
facing peer-instigated disappointment from older kids who
didn't get the latest whatsit, who wouldn't feel the urge
to keep reaching after the irreplaceable delight of a kid
facing her first snow, first menorah, first stocking?
I also wonder how this relates to the common theme among people
I know who are trying to find their own place in the holidays
and figure out how to best interact with the traditions and
desires of their families of origin. It's often bumpy and
feels a little like the identity-forming process of a second
adolescence: resisting a guilt trip in order to be in their
own home on Christmas morning, making futile requests to limit
the quantity of gifts, facing down peer disapproval for not
teaching kids that Santa is real. All this in tension, of
course, with the fact that extended family (of origin and
of choice) is an important part of the holidays for many of
As I listen to these stories, I've taken to wondering if one
of the unspoken things going on is that all these grandparents
miss the time when they made the holidays magic for us and
know better than we do just how fleeting the window will be
with our kids.
For myself, I'm aware that I've been served notice that I
need to take each year as it comes and make it meaningful
for myself and my whole family in the ways that work without
looking backward too much. Traditions are great, but you can't
repeat your kid's first word or first steps—nor their first
journey through the seasons.