The woman was watching me and my son as we made our way, hand in hand, toward the door at Panera, stopping to grab one more cup of water on the way out. She was tall and elegant, and her face was wistful as she said to me, "How old is he?
My son piped up, always eager to share what he knows. "I'm 3!" he said.
She looked me in the eye and said, gesturing at my son, "I have three boys of my own, all grown. And when I dream of them, I dream of them at this age. Enjoy these moments." We smiled at each other, two mothers sharing a moment of understanding.
She is compelled to tell me those three words, and they rush from her mouth, almost against her will. Because she knows that saying it sometimes falls on deaf ears, dismissed by mothers of small children as the words of an older mother who has forgotten what it's like.
The truth is, she didn't forget.
She didn't forget the tough times, or the nights she cried herself to sleep out of frustration. She remembers well the tantrums, and the hurt, and the times she questioned her own sanity. She knows that motherhood is hard. But she looks back and sees how much time has elapsed. >She can see clearly the past, laid bare on a road that passed by at 100 miles a minute, or so it seemed.
She knows how difficult it is to enjoy the moments when you're in the middle of them. And yet, she must remind me; she implores me with her eyes to stop time as best as I can. To dig in my heels and slow down, even knowing it won't stop my son from growing up -- nor do we want him to. We want to see him grow up to be a productive and kind adult with happy lives.
There is no doubt that children need time to be independent and parents need time for themselves. There is no doubt that we don't need to spend every waking moment focused on our children, so they can develop into the adults we want them to be.
On the other hand, when I shut down my computer and stop working for the day, and I am spending quality time with my son, I will try to remember to let go of the little things that distract me and to pay attention to the things that make this time of our lives so magical. The stranger was gently nudging my head out of my own distracted thoughts to look around and really SEE everything. To take it in and remember. And at night (in my case) when he's asleep, to write it all down so I don't forget.
It's easy for me, with just one small, healthy child. Compared to friends who have had two or even three kids under the age of 3, one is a cakewalk. After my work is finished for the day, I do my best to turn off the noise in my head and play trucks, or walk around the neighborhood, or enjoy a do-nothing day. I am focusing as best as I can, while trying to find that sweet spot of happiness for me, my son and my husband. Circling, circling.
Take a little inspiration from Today Show contributor Emily Rapp: "Take it easy, I want to say to those parents with healthy children. Enjoy your time now, rest and relax, try to stay in the moment before it's gone."
No, you don't enjoy every moment. Of course you don't. But when a mother or a grandmother looks me in the eye and said those three words, I get it. And someday, I will be them, remembering my little boy just as he is right now... exuberant, joyful, happy and sometimes stubborn, challenging and trying.
The mother at Panera remembers the regrets: the mistakes we all make as parents, the time we wasted, and the opportunities thrown away. She is asking me to be better. To try my best.
I'm up for the challenge. Keep reminding me to enjoy these moments and I'll do my best to do so.