A few nights ago, B finished dinner early, but she wasn’t quite ready for bed. So we sat on the floor of our living room in front of the Christmas tree, classical radio playing softly in the background, and read through Peter Spier’s Christmas!, one of my favorite childhood books.
There are no words, only elaborately detailed illustrations depicting a white family going about the rituals of Christmas in a small town. So I described what was going on, pointing out the things that were similar to our own family rituals and the things that were different (and noticing the lack of diversity that had never bothered me when I was six but now stands out in sharp relief). When we got to the end, she made the sign for “More!” and turned the book back to the beginning. And so we spent another fifteen minutes examining it all over again.
B is almost one and a half, and she rarely sits still for a full ten-page lift-the-flap book. Why look at one book when there are five others just waiting? (A girl after my own heart, that one.) But this time she was focused and intent. And there was something absolutely lovely about sitting with my daughter on a dark evening, lights blazing cheerfully in the living room, as we read a book together.
It was a gentle reminder to slow down, something I’ve been struggling with this entire fall. Personal identity is one thing (and one I’m still–still!–working through), but how to go about my day when it’s structured entirely differently than a school day is quite another. I never realized how accustomed I’d become to always being busy before I stayed home part-time with B.
And by “busy,” I mean “doing things that keep me from being bored.” Ever since high school I’ve always had a book with me, in case I have to wait in line at the post office or a friend is late to meet me for coffee. When I had a forty-minute commute, I got into the habit of listening to NPR and audiobooks in the car. At home, when I had the house to myself because Josh and I had different spring breaks, I’d set up a routine: newspaper and writing at a coffee shop, maybe a trip to see a historic house, perhaps a cooking project while watching Netflix, then a visit to the gym, where I’d read a book on the elliptical. Weekends were full of friend dates and exercise and errands and reading. I rarely left room for silence, for my own thoughts, because stories were so much more interesting.
But lately I’ve had to get used to my own thoughts, and to B’s thoughts, which are decidedly different from the news and fiction that used to fill my days. She’s more interested in buzzing around the house to check out her toy fruit, dance to the music that’s always on in the background, pull out all her art supplies and demand to paint, stack up a bunch of books and settle into my lap to read bits of each. She marvels at the birds in the sky and points out every single airplane that flies over our house with a quiet “fwoosh!” (her onomatopoetic word for airplane). She takes joy in slipping socks over her hands and stomping around the house in her boots. She (and I) don’t do well if there’s too much going on in our days; we can manage about one big outing, to the library or music class or a playdate, and then the rest of the day has to be on her terms, with a requisite pause for a nap in the middle. She can spend an hour in the yard just digging in the dirt.
She understands nearly everything we say, so I worry about the swear words in the thrillers I listen to in the car and wonder when I should just suck it up and switch over to Raffi. She likes to show me things and know what’s going on, so I spend a lot of time responding to her and talking about what we’ll do next, or guessing at what she’s trying to tell me through a mix of sounds, baby signs, and gestures.
I spend a lot of time trying to do the dishes (always the dishes!) while also keeping her from taking all the knives out of the dishwasher. Or trying to fold laundry while she gleefully unfolds every piece of clothing and swirls it around the room. We’ve made a commitment as a family to hold off on screen time for as long as we can, but sometimes I wonder if we’re just making it harder on ourselves. Big cooking projects are reserved for evenings when I’m not exhausted, or nap time if I’m caught up on other cleanup, or weekends when Josh is home, or the rare occasion when B is happy to ride along in the Ergo while I awkwardly chop veggies.
It’s a full day, but it’s also different. We don’t do things childless Abby would consider fulfilling. I read far less than I used to. Her word for smoothie (“moo”) has permanently entered our vocabulary. For a long time this fall I would periodically stare at B digging in the dirt and wonder how it could only be 8:30 in the morning and what on earth we were going to do for the rest of the day. It’s only this past month that I’ve really started to settle into this new kind of life, to realize that maybe it’s not so bad to not have a story going all the time, that maybe I can actually look at the pine branches B is scraping through the snow and marvel at the designs they make right along with her.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still times when I want to claw my eyes out (a friend’s apt term) from sheer boredom. A toddler is just on a different wavelength, appropriately, than an adult. But it’s getting easier to reset my perspective and enjoy those half hours of looking at a wordless picture book with serious focus. Maybe that old cliche is true, and B’s reteaching me how to look at the world from a kid’s perspective. And man, sometimes that makes me feel so lucky.