The Gift of Presence

giftofpresencemainThis morning, 10-month-old Natalie woke when it was still dark, at 5:30 a.m. I knew she'd already woken at least once before that, because sometime during the night I'd brought her into our bed, where she'd snuggled between my husband and me until that unfortunate moment when she sat up on the bed and said, "All done!"

"Shhhhh," my husband said, "Maybe she'll go back to sleep." We played dead for a few moments while she thumped us and grabbed at our hair saying, "All done, all done, all done dada!"

As if on cue my 6-year-old, Anna called out to me. She was sleeping -- or I should say not sleeping -- in a cubbyhole under our stairs which she calls the "penguin room."

I stumbled out of the bedroom with Natalie on my hip. I set the coffee to grind, took the dog out, poured cereal and sunk into the glider. And then Anna crawled into my lap -- a lap she has nearly outgrown -- and we snuggled while watching the full moon sink into the trees.

I was not at all ready to be awake. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy, and my throat swollen from a cold I couldn't shake. And yet something had begun to change in me, and I could see that morning more clearly as a gift.

Being Present

Some days I feel like a mouse scrambling through a maze just trying to get to that lump of cheese at the end. There are always wrinkly clothes waiting in the dryer, sweet potatoes to peel and chop, a bag of recycling waiting to go out. And there are my kids, with their many needs and desires punctuating my day.

Sometimes my to-do list can prevent me from being fully present with them. Sometimes I nod as if I'm listening to Anna's latest realization, such as, "Mom, do you know that eyeballs are made of goo?" When I'm really thinking about the hamburger that needs to be thawed and the kindergarten forms I forgot to complete.

As Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen wrote: "The biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live the moment enough."

She goes on to describe an old photograph of her children, taken on a summer day, when they were 1, 4 and 6. The kids are sitting on a blanket by the swing set. "I wish I could remember what we ate and what we talked about and how they sounded and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting done a little less."

Embracing the Gift

This summer I read Hold Onto Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate. The book's message came through loud and clear: Rushing damages our relationship with our children, weakens the bond that must be strong for parenting to be effective.

The authors believe that discipline is about connection, and the way we discipline should have a positive bearing on the long-term relationship. They frown on bribes and pleading and any method that ultimately compromises the dignity of the parent or child.

Our relationships with our kids are not unlike our relationships with our spouses. When the connection is strong, both make concessions for closeness and peace. So too, when we're intentional about being present and engaged with our children, they begin to value the relationship so much that they don't want to compromise it through disobedience.

Making Memories

This summer I tested the book's theory. The more I sought out closeness with my oldest child, the more yielding she became. And we were able to enjoy each other more, because everything -- especially discipline -- required less effort.

Hold Onto Your Kids also helped me to see my children's moments of dependence for what they are -- a precious and fleeting gift and opportunity to help shape them while they're still malleable.

One hot day this summer I took the girls out for gelato at a café a few blocks away. The late afternoon sun fell heavy on our shoulders as I walked with Natalie on my back and Anna on the black scooter beside me. I thought about how parenting is both harder and simpler than I'd originally imagined.

Parenting isn't about creating perfect kids -- or about being perfect myself. For me, at least, a huge part of the work of parenting is invisible and intangible -- we are the memory-makers for the next generation, planting seeds in their fertile hearts.

This is sacred and fearful work, because these seeds will grow in them in all kinds of imperceptible ways -- they can become thorny weeds that must be tugged out later in life or verdant orchards that will continue to bear fruit long after we've left this world.

As Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Brother's Karamazov, "Nothing is nobler, stronger, more vital, or more useful in future life than some happy memory, especially one from your family home. A lot is said about upbringing, but perhaps the best upbringing is some lovely, holy memory preserved from one's childhood. If a man carries many such memories with him, they will keep him safe throughout his life. And even if only one such memory stays in our hearts, it may prove to be our salvation one day."

Little Leavings

All this began to be realized -- and lived -- in the months before Anna started kindergarten. Just as I was learning to work at holding her close, life was beginning to tug her away from me.

The day I dropped her off, she placed her backpack in her cubby and found her seat at a little round table. She smiled at me as if to say -- You can go now, I'm all right — and then began to write her name on a note card. The teacher told the parents that it was time for us to go, and I filed out of the room with the other parents, tears blurring my eyes.

In the hallway, I couldn't stop them from coming, so I stood there a moment, weeping quietly. A friend came by and patted my arm, saying, "I know, I know, she's out of your control now."

This moment brought back memories from my own life, from the many leavings that were both difficult and necessary. A few years back, when I was saying goodbye to close friends at seminary, my mentor told me, "Just remember, Jenny, you came here to leave."

It is like that with our kids, too. They are birthed into our lives and nurtured in our homes only so that they can be released into the world. We embrace them each day against a horizon of small and large leavings to come. And we hope that our care will inspire them to become healers in a broken and aching world.

I know now that one way to regret less later is to be more present now. As Frederick Buechner wrote about a rushed morning with his daughters and wife: "Creation is underway, breakfast is underway, steam from the tea kettle is fogging up the windows.... Somebody is crying while somebody else says it is her own fault that she is crying. We break fast together, we break bread together fast. The clock over my wife's head is ticktocking our time away, time away. Soon it will be time to leave for school, soon it will be time to leave."

[For more on Jenny Schroedel, read her bio here.]