Today, due to some unusual circumstances, I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon and evening alone with my middle daughter, a sprightly and delicious 4-year-old. You know, when your kid is 4, it’s really not so hard to make them happy. I took her for ice cream (she got vanilla with the sprinkles already mixed in), we went shopping at the produce market, and then we went home and colored drawings of cats together (she said mine was veeery pretty).
We rounded off the day with a date at a local restaurant, where I paid five bucks for a mediocre plate of macaroni and cheese that came with “apples and fries” as a side dish. Finally, a dash home through a robust rainstorm for a bath, a book, and some snuggles as my darling little one drifted off to sleep and I struggled not to. Overall, a great time had by all.
Yet, I was aware that there was another struggle going on today, along with the good fun we had, and it concerned the singular purpose of our time together. There was only one thing that I needed to give her, that I could give her that would register in the depths of her personhood and make the cut for her long-term, subconscious memory cache. Ice cream is a hoot, but forgotten shortly after the last bite. Running in and out of the pouring rain is a favorite childhood memory for many, but probably not in the this-is-what-made-me-who-I-am sort of way.
Rather, my daughter needed my attention. I kept that word at the forefront of my cerebrum all day, even as I experienced fairly constant neuron firings urging me to check my e-mail. I have a smartphone. I could have checked it as she finished her ice cream, sticking her finger way down into the cone and dredging every last bit of sugary goodness up from the bottom; I probably could have done it without her noticing, too. But every time my hand instinctively drew back to the phone holster perched on my hip, I said to myself: ATTENTION.
My daughter needs to know she is loved. She needs to know she takes up space in my hard drive. She needs to know that there are times when she is absolutely, totally number one, without exception. Were I to have pulled out my phone while waiting to pay for the mediocre macaroni instead of watching her experiment with jumping (“Abba, how do you stay up longer in the air?”), I would have been telling her that there were other things I was attending to while we were out. But I wanted her to get the message loud and clear: You are the ONLY thing I am paying attention to right now.
So while I finished coloring my cat, and she was deeply involved in hers, I probably could have snuck an unseen glance at my inbox–certainly I have enough things going on in my life that a pretty important e-mail could show up at any time; I didn’t. I just watched her color her cat. I gave her my attention–the only thing I could really give to her that mattered. It wasn’t easy, but I succeeded. And once she was a-snooze, I crept off to the computer and began to write. I wrote to share with you my experience, and hopefully to inspire others, too, to try and put down the smartphone and give a little more attention to their kids.
And I write to inspire myself as well–to remind myself what this whole parenting gig is about, after all, and to concretize this feeling I have of a job well done.
Goodnight, middle one.