It started out as an ordinary evening, with me rushing around trying to cross the last few items off my holiday to-do list, and my two young daughters just along for the ride. We ended up hurrying in to the mall to pick up a gift, and my two-year-old couldn’t bear the thought of turning around and rushing back out again. This wasn’t the first time she’d ever seen the twinkling lights of the Christmas trees and the carrousel illuminating the night sky, but it was the first time she’d been old enough to really notice and appreciate them.
She wanted to ride the train that was circling the lower level of the shopping center, running without any tracks. She wanted to climb aboard the carrousel and pick out her favorite horse. She wanted to run from one store window to the next and peer in at all the toys on display. She wanted to extend a friendly greeting to every man, woman and child who crossed our path. But of course I didn’t have time for any of that. After all, we had an appointment at the portrait studio across town.
So in spite of her protests I dragged her away from the glittering majesty that was our local shopping mall and drove us full speed ahead to our next destination. Once there, I hurried her and her newborn sister out of the car and into the dressing room, into their fancy new dresses, and into the ideal poses suggested by our photographer. I pleaded with them to smile, and of course they did not, because they’re babies. It was only later that evening, as I reflected on their expressions of bewilderment and annoyance, that the guilt came upon me like a ton of bricks filling my chest.
All at once I realized I’d been treating my children as mere playthings—china dolls to dress up, show off and carry with me on all my errands. For two years my older daughter hadn’t minded this, but she was now developing her own opinions and taking a unique interest in the world around her. Why did I need these pictures, anyway, and why did I need my children to look happy in them? Was it so that I could look back years later and remember the magic of this holiday season? And if so, why had I, in my quest for the perfect portrait, actually deflated my daughter’s Christmas spirit by depriving her of the wonder she’d perceived in the simplest aspects of the occasion? Wasn’t it my own childhood memories of train rides and window shopping that lent this holiday the splendor and enchantment it still holds for me today? Shame on me.
As I kicked myself, a guilty mother’s version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol played on the reels of my tired and flustered mind. I imagined myself as the too-busy, thoughtless mother (i.e. Ebenezer Scrooge) who awoke one morning to find myself an accomplished, world renowned writer. My daughters were grown and one of them was no longer speaking to me. The other daughter was still in touch, but I did not feel as if I knew her. I certainly couldn’t reach out and scoop her up, smooth her hair, and treat her to a ride on the carrousel as I once could have. Where had the time gone, and who was this woman standing where my little girl had once stood?
An afternoon on the town square with this young woman revealed she had children, but no time to spend with them. She’d misplaced her priorities just as I had, and was perpetuating a cycle of simply missing the point. She treated the children as mere extensions of herself, teaching them to put on airs in public and to always smile regardless of how they were truly feeling. They were remarkably well mannered when addressed, but could not be bothered to notice the man on the corner ringing a bell for the Salvation Army, or the homeless woman pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk. If anything, they saw the strangers around them as a captive audience of sorts—a faceless mass who existed solely for the purposes of witnessing their perfectly coiffed charades. My grown daughter confided in me that her sister had chosen not to have children at all. It wasn’t a matter of having found fulfillment in another calling, but rather a belief that children were a burden she would come to resent.
To imagine that either of my daughters had ever felt that way was simultaneously excruciating and enlightening. While I’d never felt burdened by my role as their mother, I had often made my girls feel like barriers to progress. Like Scrooge in the classic novella, my heavy heart desperately longed for another chance. I wished I could wake up in time for Christmas, in time to relive that day at the mall, but of course I did not. That beautiful moment—my little girl’s wide eyes shimmering in the light reflected off of those giant Christmas trees—had passed and was gone forever. I had run it over with my freight train of selfishness disguised as productivity. I had messed up, and there was no taking it back.
Mercifully, though, as parents of very young children, we are all granted a clean slate at the start of each new day. We inevitably fail, and we’re inevitably be forgiven—invited with tiny open arms and huge hopeful hearts to try, try again. In a way our children are far more patient with us than we are with them. I awoke the following morning to find myself still delightfully entrenched in the exhausting, glorious days of early motherhood. My oldest is still two years old, with a world of surprises in store for her this Christmas season. My youngest is still a newborn, and has yet to make her first lasting memory. Today is sweet, in all of its stressful splendor. It is a fleeting opportunity to focus my attention on what really matters, and I’ve resolved to do just that.
I can’t promise that I will never again rush my children through a busy shopping center or ask them to pose for a cheesy family portrait, but I can tell you I am going to do better in 2015. From here on out I will no longer be the first to break eye-contact with a smiling baby. I will make a point of greeting toddlers (and dogs) with the same boundless enthusiasm the offer me. And I will make special trips to the mall just so my daughter can tug my arm and lead me around, showing me how to live. Now and then, when she begs for one more ride on the train, I will indulge her, because the last day of her childhood will be upon us soon, without warning, and I know I’ll be wishing for one more day like this one.