Building strong childhood memories

I get more melancholy about the end of summer than my kids do. They love school, and started the new school year today. About my own sadness about this time of year, I know that it’s largely because my kids are the ones who teach me to play, not to work all the time.

One of my weak spots as a parent is that I’ve always been more of a workaholic who doesn’t unplug easily. In college I juggled five part-time jobs. I tended to work 60-hour weeks in the New York publishing industry before my daughter was born in 1999.

The day before school started this year for my sixth-grade daughter, and first-grade son, we had many wonderful days outside. We went to the State Fair, visited a wildflower garden and bird sanctuary, went geocaching in a state park, dabbled in tennis, and spent hours reading and playing on the beach. Good, simple, joyful living. Isn’t the pleasure of heartily “doing nothing” in company with each other the best part of family life?

As I watched my son leap gleefully for hours in the water, making his own fun with a log and a stick, I remembered a few years ago, before he was in school, when I was impatiently required to take him outside to play. I wanted to get some work done instead. And how sharp it was for me to realize that, on a glorious day, I found it a chore to have to go outside and take a break.

Now, thanks to my children, I am learning how to live a healthier life.

I’ve been involved in many discussions lately about the Choice Mom lifestyle and the impact it has on a child to grow up without a father. I’ve written here about how important I think it is to think of childhood as being offered a plate of “pivot points” that shape us. That I believe the emphasis specifically on whether a child grows up with one parent or two is missing the mark of what truly matters.

Yes, we do all get jealous at times, seeing families that include wonderful, involved dads. Or seeing a mother who has amazing support from her partner. Or realizing that the married couple we like to do things with don’t struggle nearly as much to pay for recreational fun as we do.

But the more I watch my kids really enjoy life, the more I remember what actually matters.

My daughter can bury herself in a 500-page novel, or effortlessly glide down a ski slope enjoying the sensation on her face, or soar excitedly in the air with her grandmother in a parasailing adventure on the French Riviera, or giggle over “Let’s Dance” Wii with a friend. My son, nearly always bubbling over with smiles, can immerse himself in drawing or cars, run as fast as he can down the street, ride his bike along the lake, chase around with his t-ball teammates after a game. And in so doing, implore me to shut down my computer and join them in the sun.

Admittedly, I’m still not good at making a habit of the weekly Family Game night we frequently talk about. I’m far too likely to remind them that I have to clean the house or make dinner or finish writing something.

So much attention is paid to what society wants parents to give to their children. But aren’t children, honestly, here to remind us of the magic in living a full life? Feeling the sunshine on our face. The breeze on our arms. The delight of seeing a goldfinch flitting above us. The wonder of learning new things. The exuberance of making a new friend.

I’ve always been jealous of people who can create poetic memoirs. I heard a childhood recollection the other day from writer Elizabeth Andrews. I’ve always appreciated Mary Oliver’s skills.

When I think about the stories some of the most meaningful writers tell, it’s not about the amazing Nintendo play system they got for Christmas. Or even the list of life lessons they got from Mom or Dad. It’s about small moments that opened up pinpoints of light. Allowing something new to leak in. A revelation in miniature, reflected decades later in our individual rooms.

This is the power and gift of childhood. The happiest adults, I believe, were kids who were able to experience the miracle of connections and moments. And those who are able to experience a kind of rebirth being in community with children.

Our main obligation as parents is, not to fill their days with things and playdates, but to take the time to see with them.

Can you tell that I’m melancholy about losing my kids to school today? Yet excited that my little girl, for one, is entering the major changes of middle school for the first time.

What do you think? What do childhood and parenthood mean for you?

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