My family's been traveling out of the country this week, and I've largely unplugged from the cyberworld in which I had not realized how much I exist on a nearly moment-by-moment basis. For the duration of this vacation, which marks the 10th anniversary of a medical diagnosis that was nearly fatal for my husband (we are forever grateful for organ donors), I have purposely checked emails very seldom.
And unless something has been truly urgent, I've put off responding until I'm back, instead inflicting an out-of-the-office message on anyone who wants my attention.
Nor have I turned on the television, though I've caught the occasional headline in the background as we've been in restaurants. What I know for certain about current events this week consists pretty much of the fact that the all-female musical group Fifth Harmony is disbanding. I know because one of my daughters is sad about it.
I know because I've given my daughters, now mostly grown, my undivided attention throughout the meals and metro rides and casual strolls through strange places over the course of the last several days.
If you ask me, I'll tell you I'm a pretty good mom, and I think — at least I hope — they would agree with that assessment. For the approximately two decades I've been a mom, I have tried hard to be an attentive mom who's up-to-date on and applies the research about what makes children thrive.
I have been a distracted mom, too.
I've worked long hours the entire length of my children's lives. My husband and I took care of my mother-in-law, who lived with us during the final months of her life. Around that same time, my siblings and I were sharing responsibility for my mom, who had Alzheimer's for several years before her death. And I was busy, too, managing the battle for my husband's survival.
Still, I never missed a single parent-teacher conference, and I read to my kids every night, played with them a lot and loved them wholeheartedly. But I'd be lying if I denied only half listening on many occasions — either because I had other pressing matters screaming for my attention or because I was so distracted and scattered that I couldn't — or simply wouldn't — always focus.
All those cyber things I've turned away from this week were part of that equation for much of their childhood, too. "I'd love to hear that story, just let me catch this headline, please." "I'll help you with that math problem as soon as I finish cleaning out my spam folder." "I'd like to take you for a haircut today, but can we do it Saturday instead because …."
One evening on our trip, my husband was beat after a hectic day of sight-seeing and a truly vicious jet lag cycle, so my darling young women daughters and I went off to dinner, where they regaled me with stories I didn't know about the things that I'd missed as they were growing up. It's inevitable and healthy that children have separate lives and the experiences to prove it. But as we laughed and told each other stories, I was truly struck by how much I had missed. Not just the stuff that happens when your child is somewhere else — at school or out playing or at their jobs — but the stuff that happens when your eyes are on your phone or you're half-listening while watching TV because you're tired and you see them all the time, right?
Adults often joke that they are most apt to visit the museums and art galleries or check out the scenery in their communities when company comes to town and one has to entertain them.
We are often like that with our children, I think. We assume there'll be plenty of time. And then you're laughing and talking over dinner somewhere and it occurs to you that they're grown and halfway out the door.
And you know, finally, that time — and those girls — are the most precious things life ever offered you.