When I was in high school I read a poem -- entitled "To My Grown-Up Son" -- by Alice E. Chase:
My hands were busy through the day,
I didn't have much time to play
The little games you asked me to,
I didn't have much time for you.
I'd wash your clothes; I'd sew and cook,
But when you'd bring your picture book
And ask me, please, to share your fun,
I'd say, "A little later, son."
I'd tuck you in all safe at night,
And hear your prayers, turn out the light,
Then tiptoe softly to the door,
I wish I'd stayed a minute more.
For life is short, and years rush past,
A little boy grows up so fast,
No longer is he at your side,
His precious secrets to confide.
The picture books are put away,
There are no children's games to play,
No goodnight kiss, no prayers to hear,
That all belongs to yesteryear.
My hands once busy, now lie still,
The days are long and hard to fill,
I wish I might go back and do,
The little things you asked me to.
It made such an impression I recopied it in my own handwriting and put it in a scrapbook filled with similar tales of grownup regrets I was determined to avoid. The most important regret? Not appreciating kids while they were little. I didn't know a single person who felt like he'd savored that time of life.
Well, except for one. His parenting advice was simple: "Make lots of memories."
Many years later I went on a date with a guy who told me the memory he most cherished of his late mother was falling asleep to the sound of her laughter. I couldn't stop thinking about that. I didn't know if I was going to be a mom, but I knew what kind of mom I wanted to be.
Many years after that I read an essay by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek, and committed this excerpt to the end of a computer file I added to constantly -- so if I didn't read it in the course of adding a new entry I'd at least have to mouse over it...
"The biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages six, four, and one. And 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 it done a little less."
By now I was a mom, and I had a recipe for doing it right. The last two lines from the poem I just mentioned became "I wish I could go back and do the little things you asked me to" and they played in my head constantly. When I was tempted to tell Katie no -- or sometimes even after I had -- I almost always reversed that decision. She wasn't asking me to turn my back on my values, after all -- whatever it was represented a minor inconvenience, and I was not going to be the woman in the poem.
And sure, it became a joke between Katie and me. She started using it on me before it occurred to me to use it. There are worse things to show a child, though -- a determination to say no only when you have a good reason.
For a while I started racing through our bedtime routines in an attempt to get everyone a good night's sleep. "To heck with that," I decided, eventually. I was determined, like Anna wished she would've been, to treasure the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.
Now I measure the success of a day by how many giggles there are as it winds down. Katie makes it easy. She teases us in a Russian accent, and soon we're doubled over with laughter. Is Robin Williams this funny when he gets going? I doubt it. But part of what made Robin who he is, I remember reading, was the delight he felt at making his mother laugh.
Katie falls asleep to the sound of my laughter, knowing she's 100 percent responsible.
It's been such a privilege, watching her grow up. She puts on a good show.
But me? I'm a good audience. And that's what makes me a good mom.
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