Every morning after I raise my 49-year-old body out of bed, I kiss my daughter's forehead and croon a little morning lullaby to coax her to start her day. I take her hands and sing, "Will You Dance with Me?" from the King & I. If I'm lucky, Grace will rise to the occasion, climb onto my back and catch a ride to the kitchen. Then, if there's no school, we like to ride our bikes through the neighborhood, swim, draw silly faces or bake our favorite cookies.
I color an idyllic picture of a mother and daughter under a rainbow in happy communion. But trust me, our life together hasn't all ways been a festival of song and dance and crayons. In fact, in some ways, it wasn't even that much fun. Becoming a mother later in life has sometimes been a struggle -- not only on the physical front but on an emotional and practical level as well. I was 40 when I gave birth to my daughter, and the CEO of philosophy, a multimillion-dollar skincare company with hundreds of employees. Having spent almost two decades in a boardroom, I had lost touch with my ability to play.
My brain flew at warp speed for the office but at home, my infant daughter often needed me to be still. I was better at inhaling my meals standing up than slowly spooning out organic baby food to my child. I tried desperately to rock her to sleep but when I held her in my arms, she'd fuss and squirm. Clearly, she picked up on the corporate stress coursing through my body.
When I was with her, I found myself laboring over every business email as if it was all that really mattered. But when I was back in the office I missed each and every part of her. My mind was at work but my heart was at home, as if I had somehow been cleaved in half, each part living in a totally different world. Trying to serve both masters, I felt as if I was failing both.
Somewhere in my heart, I knew things could be different. My mother, a full-time homemaker, could calm a soul just by holding a child in her arms -- a true baby whisperer. Being present came so naturally to her. When I thought back to my childhood, my best memories were of all her moments of endless serenity. I loved going to church with her and just being by her side. To me, my mother was ageless, a miracle of patience, compassion and energy. She was a nurturer who could send her child to sleep just by quietly telling a story. But she was also a playmate who took me skiing and skating as a child. She was the mother I wanted to be.
With my mother's example in mind, I knew I had to learn to be very, very present and to be a kid again, not only for my daughter's sake, but my own good, too
One day Grace threw legs over her head. I immediately did the same. We giggled. From that earthy center of gravity, I suddenly entered her enchanted kingdom. We began singing songs, rolling on the floor. And then came magic ... I discovered that my daughter was the most ticklish girl in the world. It was me all over again! I could remember the days of my childhood when just a tickling party, followed by dolls and dress up was a full play day. I had so completely lost myself in our play that when I looked up at the clock I suddenly realized that several hours had passed.
I understood then that I either learned to live in Grace's world or we would forever lose one another. I started to see the world from her point of view. And that's when I knew I had found the fountain of youth. I felt as ageless as she did for the moments we were fully present in her playroom or just cuddling in one another's arms. After that revelation, it was only a matter of time before my little girl started to fall asleep just by hearing me whisper a story and a gentle goodnight.
I once read somewhere that it is only when we stand in the present moment that we have no fear of the cycle of birth, life and death. We find the balance and happiness that live in our core. When we stand in the present, we are timeless and ageless. That was how I wanted to relate to my child -- as a mentor and spiritual companion, yes, but also as someone who could give herself over to play. That meant not just going through the motions but also truly enjoying our time together.
I asked my favorite parent friends how they learned to play and connect with their kids, and become ageless in the process. This is what keeps them joyful and present in their children's lives. For years I have used these exact same lessons and they have proved nothing short of miraculous.
Check out the World from Their P.O.V.:
There's something about getting on your hands and knees that helps you relate to your little one. From that vantage point, you speak to kids on their level, both literally and figuratively. What's more, shifting your line of vision (and your whole center of gravity) helps you severe ties to the stress-inducing adult world -- the wall clock, your laptop, and that stack of bills on your desk -- at least for a while!
Remember that you are the most important person in your children's life. They are fully aware of how precious time spent with you is, even if they can't articulate it. "Half the time I find myself telling my daughters, 'I can't play with you right now,'" says Mallika Chopra, the author of 100 Questions from My Children and 100 Promises to My Child. But if the whining persists, that's when Mallika, who also runs the popular website, Intent.com, sits down to talk to her daughters. "I try to really listen to what they're feeling," she says. What she discovers most of the time is "they need to play with me -- it's just as fundamental as cuddling, reading or eating together." That's when Mallika puts her Blackberry down and invests the effort into whatever game they want to play. "I remind myself that these moments are precious," she says. "I take my other hats off, and go back to my role as mother."
Channel Your Inner Child:
Do with your children what you loved to do as a child, whether you adored hunting for frogs, fishing or roller-skating. No doubt, your enthusiasm will not only light up your own spirit but your child's, too. Sharing family passions, such as a love of world travel, "will help you maintain and grow your relationship, even during the college years," says Brandel France de Bravo, co-author of the parenting book, Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World.
Keep Your Sense of Wonder:
Even if you can no longer do cartwheels or climb a tree you can still marvel at your child's acrobatics or her ability to scale a branch like a cat -- and all the moments of magic in our daily lives. Skim stones across a lake together and count the ripples. Watch the grand Shakespearean drama that goes on in a beehive. You can connect with your child if you still view the world through wonder-seeking eyes.
Remember the Amazing Lessons Your Child Teaches You:
As adults we may have already experienced so much in the world, but when you share those same experiences with your children, they make them new again. Mallika took her two daughters to see her favorite Impressionist paintings at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris last year. "They were paintings I had seen my whole life," Mallika said. "But when the kids looked at them they saw details that I had never noticed before. Watching them discover the world is a learning experience. It inspires me."
In so many ways, I felt like Grace did the same for me. My child showed me how to look at the little things I took for granted everyday -- the patterns that leaves make when they fall to the ground, the way ants meet on a path and nod hello to each other -- and view them with new eyes. As a mother, I now understand that there's a part of me that will never grow old -- it's my ageless soul.
Cristina Carlino is a mother, poet and the founder and creator of philosophy, one of the most beloved brands in the cosmetic industry. Her new book, The Changing Room: A Mother's Journal of Gratitude to Her Little Girl, is available at amazon.com. 100% of proceeds go to Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation, which supports survivors of rape, incest and abuse. Please visit Cristina's fan page at www.facebook.com/cristinacarlino