The other night, I read an piece from No Regrets Parenting entitled, "How To Spend More Quality Time With Your Child." In the first paragraph, author Dr. Rotbart suggests that rather than struggling to increase the quantity of time you spend with your family, focus on increasing the quality of memorable moments with them.
It appeared that Dr. Rotbart and I shared a similar parenting philosophy, so I continued reading. I had no idea I was about to get a glimpse of something far worse than the sight of a nit on a hair shaft or the contents of a sippy cup of milk after four months under the bed.
In fact, mid-way through the article, I looked down and wondered if that was sweat or tears filling the spaces between my computer keys. And surely those guttural sobbing noises I was hearing were not coming from me.
What was going on here?
Well, I can tell you; it was this line: "There are only 940 Saturdays between a child's birth and her leaving for college. That may sound like a lot, but how many have you already used up? If your child is 5 years old, 260 Saturdays are gone. Poof!"
Whoa. Hold on a minute, Dr. Rotbart. Did you just tell me I only have 680 Saturdays left with my youngest child?
Given the fact that the doctor used the pronoun "her" and the example age of 5, it did seem that he was, in fact, personally delivering this bad news to me.
And I wasn't taking it well.
In fact, the further I read into the article, the more emotional my reaction became. I felt my eyes and mouth grotesquely contort into the "ugly cry face." You know the one: snot runs down your nose into your mouth, and you don't even care because you're so distraught.
Blame the hysterical breakdown on this paragraph: "Picture their tousled bedrooms as clean and empty. See the backseat of the car vacuumed and without a car seat or crumbs … Then rewind the imaginary clock back to now, and see today's minutes of mayhem for what they are: finite and fleeting."
The thought of Express Car Wash Guy no longer needing to call in back up with hazmat suits when I pulled up actually made my lip quiver. I couldn't bear to imagine the day my car would be void of treasures like a fossilized teething biscuit from 2001 or the beloved one-armed Polly Pocket that I thought we left poolside at Holiday Inn in 2005.
I realized I was TOTALLY missing the positive message of the article. Yet, I couldn't get past the fact that I had been living my life unaware of the fact that there is an exact number of Saturdays before my kids permanently leave the house.
I cursed the hospital staff for neglecting to inform me that my newborn baby came with "minutes," just like a pre-paid phone card. And just as one who had carelessly wasted calling minutes by drunk-dialing, making prank phone calls, and multi-tasking while talking, I felt desperate to get those minutes back.
But it was hopeless.
I could envision the sour faced sales manger of "Minutes With Your Children," shaking her unsympathetic head at me.
"I am sorry, Ma'am. You HAD 940 on your card and now you only have 680. I cannot give you a refund just because you now decide you shouldn't have spent your credits bitching and moaning about lack of sleep, dirty clothes on the floor, and not being able to go to the bathroom by yourself."
I was sobbing uncontrollably now. I didn't know how I would break it to my husband. How could I tell him we had a deficit of 260 on "the card" for our youngest child? (And God only knows the even smaller number of minutes left on "the card" for our oldest child.)
But I never had the chance to tell him.
As soon as my backside hit the couch where my husband sat, my older child came wandering in. Having been asleep for several hours, she was squinty eyed, groggy, and had hair sticking up in ten different directions—she never looked so beautiful.
My child then spoke three words, which up until the moment I heard the ticking clock of "Saturdays Gone By," were the LAST words I ever wanted to hear at 10 p.m. when I finally sat down to relax.
"I can't sleep," she gurgled and then burst into tears.
I bolted from my seat as if she had just announced they were giving out free chair massages and margaritas in her room. I didn't even consider debating with my husband about whose turn it was to tuck in the unwelcomed sleepwalker. What was happening at that moment was a dream come true. I was being given some time back on "the card;" I was receiving the impossible refund!
As my child and I laid in the darkness of her bedroom, I began rubbing her tummy just like I did when she was a baby. Immediately, I wondered how many "Belly Rub Credits" were left on "the card." Determining that she was almost 9 and might possibly decide at ANY DAY she is too old for this, I proceeded to rub until my arm lost all feeling and bordered on permanent nerve damage.
Soon my child was breathing heavily in a peaceful slumber. I studied her face. After all, she was still here, under my roof, in my care. In 680 Saturdays, she'd be getting ready to head out of her college dorm room without a coat wearing shoes that would eventually lead to back problems. After drinking "Boones Farm" straight from the bottle, she would dance all night with a gaggle of friends, and then eat a non-organic hot dog handled by a street vendor who very rarely washed his hands.
Needless to say, I cried myself to sleep that night.
The next day, my mental state had not improved. My thought process centered around "the card." How many more episodes of Little House on the Prairie will we watch together before my kids stage a revolt and demand iCarly? How many more times will I watch her sweetly pluck the strings on her tiny ukulele before she dyes her hair pink and decides to play the drums?
While some of my new "awareness" was causing positive behavior change, thinking in terms of the time I had left was making me feel sad. It was also preventing me from living in the moment, which is what my "Hands Free" journey is all about.
I decided to take a moment to look inward. Why was I having such an intense feeling about the information in this article? Why did Dr. Rotbart's message strike such a chord in me?
Maybe because the other morning, she made her own scrambled egg all by herself.
Maybe because the two of them walked to a neighbor's house down the street and kindly told me they wouldn't need me to accompany them anymore.
Maybe because while shopping for spring clothes they informed me they only wanted to match on "special occasions" from now on.
Maybe because we recently boxed up books to take to Goodwill, and they had no trouble tossing in beloved favorites that had been read to them at least a thousand times.
Maybe when the two of them sing in the car, I strain to detect one ounce of baby voice in their musical stylings and hear none.
Maybe because time is fleeting and I can feel it, see it, mourn it … so much more than I could in the long, exhausting baby days.
Maybe because my kids don't need me as much anymore, and I realize this is just the start of what's to come.
Although I know calculating how much time I have on "the card" is not a healthy, nor is it a productive way to live, I don't regret reading that article. I needed the wake up call it produced. I needed to be shaken and reminded that having to sweep up the crumbs beneath their chairs every single night is not really a "problem."
I needed to be reminded that each time she still grasps my hand as we cross a busy street or asks me to "c'mere" so she can show me a ladybug are moments to stop and savor.
I needed to be reminded that I could complain a bit less, cherish a bit more, let go of the have-tos and live a little more.
Because God knows, that day will come when I stand inside her closet, and I will be able to see the floor. There will be no brightly-colored clothes haphazardly hung from hangers along the narrow walls, no dirty clothes that had missed the mark of the hamper.
And I will place my hand on all that is left. And when I do, I will be so grateful that I hugged her that day rather than scolding her for writing her name on the wall of the closet.
That day was Saturday #286. It was the day I realized time was fleeting, and a moment of exasperation is as much a gift of time as is a moment of joy; it just comes without the pretty packaging.