Once I felt confident that toddler Milo would not drown in our ugly pink bathtub if I left the room, I often strapped infant Ruby to my chest and used Milo’s bath time to clean up the nightly dinner hurricane. A favorite anecdote in our family has Milo splashing around in the bath unsupervised, running new water and watching it go down the drain. When I realized that Milo had turned on the water and that the drain was open, I came running in.
“Milo! You are wasting water if you just let it flow down the drain!”
“No, I using it!” he cooed.
“What do you mean?”
“It making me happy,” he said with an emphatic splash.
How attuned our children are to doing something just for the happiness of it.
As a detail oriented American working mother of two, I rarely have the time or wherewithal to do something with my children just because it sparks joy. Every book read aloud, push of the swing, and song we sing serves multiple functions. Lull to sleep, get fresh air, distract from the long drive — no, we are not there yet — boost their literacy skills, socialize them, let them see me being silly. Maybe if I could disengage from my own plots for Milo and Ruby, I could settle in to the activity at hand, but my mind is always pushing towards the rationale, the higher goal, the next thing.
In the classroom, this split attention is essential. My success as an educator was in large part a mastery of multitasking. Master teachers use training, experience, empathy, and x-ray vision to see beneath the surface to their students’ micro-struggles and know who to push to write a bit more, to work with larger numbers. Thomas needs extra praise, Amelia needs a bathroom break, Max needs another paper because his is already crumpled. Today’s lesson on dominoes folds into tomorrow’s lesson on addition. Good teachers have to do many higher-order tasks at once, and they have to keep an eye on the clock.
But the parents I admire seem to do one thing at a time without a sense of what time it is. Now we are putting on your green rainboots! Now we are eating fresh figs. Look at that beautiful, beautiful tree! These beatific parents are often late for preschool and doctors’ appointments, but they do not care. This seems to me an impossible luxury. I cannot linger in doorways; I have to go open my classroom door before the first bell rings.
It turns out the work of teachers and the work of parents is not as similar as I thought before I started doing both jobs simultaneously. When it comes to raising children, teachers are the business hours professionals, and parents work the night and weekend shifts. Teachers are witnesses and parents are like court reporters. A parent sees a child working at a desk. A teacher sees a child with a particular learning profile, a unique educational history, navigating the intersection of personal and group needs. Teachers are supposed to offer informed support within clear boundaries; parents are supposed to offer unconditional love. Within the micro-community of a single household, it is easy for a parent to become mired in minutia, while teachers in their crowded classrooms with administrators must constantly channel what is towards what could be.
I have studied enough Eastern religion and lived in Berkeley, California long enough to know that truly enlightened people (even parents) remain “in the moment.” In India I watched a grasshopper crawl across a monk’s face while he meditated; he did not flinch or even open his eyes. My sister’s boyfriend — let’s call him Seth — builds elaborate forts with Milo and Ruby out of sheets and hair ties that take eons to create and even longer (for me) to disassemble. Seth lets my kids shoot him fully dressed with water guns. He stays with them in the moment.
But enlightened teachers shuttle between the moment and the momentum, between the text and subtext. I am too exhausted after eight hours of multitasking at work to code-switch into total presence with Milo and Ruby after work. “I miss you,” Ruby often says, even when we are sitting right next to one another. The guilt I feel about this is suffocating. Maybe one day it will be us sauntering into events just as they are ending, glowing with health and leisure, each hair in its place, brushed and braided. For now, though, we are perfectly punctual at all costs. One of us may be crying, another missing a shoe, but it’s said that time stops for no one, and I believe it.