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Wonder in the Moment

Every 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 turn.

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 day.

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 us.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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