What It Means to Be Attentive

I’m writing this as the girls play upstairs with two neighborhood friends. I can hear squeals and thumps and am confident I’ll see them all at some point, wearing my daughters’ fanciest dresses. (It’s a favorite activity.) I am ready to intervene if necessary, but I have no idea what they’re doing.

The other day I was with a “soul friend” who asked me how things were going now that all three are in school. I’ve been so excited for this new chapter of our lives that I was surprised to find myself blurting out, “I’m feeling a little grief right now.”

But I am.

James has lost all his baby-ness—and though it is heresy in some quarters to say so, the baby phase is far from my favorite. He’ll be four soon, which is one of my favorite stages. I love the questions—400 a day. I love seeing them move beyond describing their world and into evaluating, analyzing, imagining. The shift to preschool is not as dramatic as it is for some kids, since he’s been in daycare at our neighbor’s house for a long time. But still. He now has a hook with his name on it for his coat and his tote. There is a specific start and end to the day. There are rituals and hallway rules and forms for me to fill out.

Margaret is in kindergarten now. She’s been longing for kindergarten for sooo loooong, watching her sister get on the bus and buy her lunch and do homework. When Robert attended back to school night, Margaret’s teachers said, “We wish we had more time with you tonight, because we have a lot of Margaret stories to share.” Is anyone surprised?

Caroline is starting to care about what she wears. She composes songs on the piano and walks around singing all the pieces she’s learning in choir. She ran for student council rep, writing a speech for her class and reading it with her trademark forthrightness. She did not win, but she brushed it off with great maturity.

Every phase is better than the one before it.

But… yes. Grief.

Part of this is the typical realization that it goes by very fast. (In a way—it also goes verrrrry slowly.) But what my friend and I were able to unravel is that I am changing as my children change.

It’s a goal of mine to parent mindfully, to notice what is going on, to name it (aloud or on paper), and just generally be attentive to what is going on. This parenting thing is fun, you know? And it’s easier to be attentive with littles. It’s kinda built in. When they’re young, you’re with them for hours at a time, face to face, looking them square in the eye, beholding them as you nurse them, bathe them, brush their teeth. And there’s so much intervention required—they need you to set up the Chutes and Ladders, to pull on their socks, to cut their meat.

We’re still eye to eye a lot, but more and more, we’re side by side. As it should be. I read a magazine and they play a game. Robert cooks dinner and Caroline reads to James. Just as toddlers experience parallel play, it happens with parents and their children too.

So I have to learn a new way of attentiveness. They’re upstairs with friends right now, making up whole new worlds. I shouldn’t be lurking about. They need their space.

But I don’t want to miss this either.

Yes, we must always make time for long moments together. (The Sabbath practice continues!) But the challenge now is to be attentive at the margins: while sharing an errand together, in the last few minutes before bed, walking home from the bus stop, at the breakfast table. Every moment is an opportunity to savor, to experience joy, to express love. But it feels much harder, as the busyness of life presses in, and as these little people develop their own busynesses to contribute.

I feel as though I’ve finished the Basic Mindfulness course. Now it’s time for the upper-level work.

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One thought on “What It Means to Be Attentive

  1. “Attentive at the margins”: thanks for this.
    My three year old is doing the 400 questions a day and the “I want to do it by myself!” moves at the same time. Your reflections are helpful.

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