I recently read a comment by a former nun, now a mother, that it took 23 years of meditation training to prepare her for life with a 3-year old*. This resonates with me. Parenting, certainly, is not just about the physical: changing diapers, feeding, nurturing. It is also a discipline of the mind, and the spirit. Just ask anyone who has recently taken a walk with a toddler. There are leaves and stones and crawly things and twigs and strange bits to inspect: every. six. inches.
What a challenge this can be! I have learned that there are two kinds of walks. If I have an agenda (“Hurry up! Keep moving. We have to be at the school in 15 minutes!”), and I expect my little one to walk my way, then we will most certainly arrive at our destination with tears and a headache and a squirming one year old, kicking as I tuck him under my arm like I’m a quarterback and the clock’s running down.
This kind of walk is about moving from Point A to Point B. If I have a schedule to keep, I do not expect young children to understand the urgency of time. (What, of course, could be more pressing than watching ants moving dirt?) So, in this case, my son is in the stroller or on my back. Maybe we drive. It has taken me almost a decade of parenting to realize that I do not have the skills, nor the patience to combine this kind of expedition with the second kind: Walking Together.
When I decide to take this second kind of walk, it is helpful to me, as a list-making, multi-tasking adult, to set boundaries within my own mind. I might, for example, decide that for the next 10-minutes I am going to follow my son around, as he explores this and that, with no expectations of our time together. And then, when we’re done, we’ll go on to the next thing. Simple as that.
Simple, eh? Then why is it so hard, at least for me, to be present when I’m with my children? How easy it is to be here, but not really here. How easy it is to pay more attention to my watch or incoming texts, then to spend time seeing the world from my child’s perspective.
I didn’t arrive at this occupation with the contemplative wisdom of a nun, not many of us do. But is the training that we can participate in as parents, day after day after day, so different? Walking or reading or drawing or playing together, it is all about being here. It is about enjoying a sunny day, or feeling the wind in our faces. It is about inspecting grass growing up through cracks in the sidewalk, and noticing the trails of clouds above us. And in these moments, of course, we have nowhere to go: we’re already there.
*Shambala Sun, March 2013: pg. 8