So often I hear people with older or grown-up children say to me "appreciate this time - it's so precious, and over so quickly." I tend to reply, "Oh, I do." But what does it really mean to "appreciate" it, and how do we make sure we are? My twins are growing up so quickly I can feel time slipping through my fingers and I wish that I could slow it down. I think to myself that if I can't do that, I can at least make sure I am appreciating every moment. This occasionally becomes an almost obsessive concern where I feel that I must cherish this time so that when they are grown up I can look back and feel that I really made the most of their childhood. And then I see the state of their bedroom, or I find the sofa covered in Lego pieces and I confess appreciation stops being at the forefront of my mind. However, when I see them fast asleep, still curled up the way they did as babies, I wish that I could hold onto every precious moment. The problem is it's much easier to think that when they are unconscious.
Occasionally I might read a news article, or hear a terrible story about some tragedy involving children, and I find it affects me deeply. I imagine myself in those situations, and I tell myself to be so grateful for all that I have. I hug my children a little tighter, and remind myself not to get stressed about things that don't really matter. I certainly do appreciate what I have at those times. While I think it is a very good thing to remember how lucky we are, tragic-thinking-induced appreciation (for want of a more eloquent description!) is an exhausting and anxiety-inducing state to live in. It is also very hard to hold on to day-to-day as mundanity takes over your life. I also feel that it's a self-defeating method, as part of my brain is clearly thinking some dark and nightmarish thoughts while I am busy "appreciating" how wonderful my children are. Surely there is a better way of making the most of this time?
I don't claim to have found the answer, but these are the thoughts and ideas I have had on the subject:
Don't get too hung up on it
A couple of hundred years ago people probably didn't concern themselves too much about whether they were appreciating their children's childhood, they were just hoping the mother survived childbirth and the offspring survived infancy. It's still the case in many parts of the world. Remember that "appreciating" childhood is what we get when we're not worrying about basic survival.
Put the iphone down from time to time
The main way I feel I'm not appreciating time fully is when I get distracted. It's so easy when you have a smartphone to be sending a text, checking an email or just generally browsing in a dazed "I just need to zone out for a few minutes" way. The trouble is you may look at the phone to find the answer to a question the children have just asked, but then notice there's an email or text that's come in, and start checking that as well. Sometimes you just need to put it down and not look at it. Designate phone-free times of the day. We now have a rule of no phones at the table, so mealtimes are just for conversation. I also try to ignore any texts coming in if I'm in the middle of an activity with the kids.
Indulge in mundanity
I feel guilty sometimes that I've wasted my time on things that aren't really important. But recently, I've started to look at it differently: you are always going to waste a certain amount of time on things you later think don't really matter. That's one of the perks of not being constantly aware of time ticking away in your life. If you live in a constant state of "appreciation", you will exhaust yourself. Those who feel they can afford to waste some time on things that don't matter too much are lucky. But...
Once in a while try to reset the clock
Occasionally just stop and reflect on how you spend your time with your children, and make tweaks accordingly. Make sure that you don't put those things that matter to you (or to them) at the bottom of the to-do list everyday. I also find it very easy to get into bad habits, whether it's being distracted by my phone, or getting constantly bad-tempered trying to get the kids out to school on time in the morning. Think about how you could do things differently to break whatever habits you have got into. Acknowledge that this will have to be a repeated process (unless you are more disciplined than I am!) as bad habits are so much easier to keep than good ones.
Experience it all
Not all parts of parenting are enjoyable. Some of it is just plain hard work. You can't love all of it. I know that there are whole chunks of the first year of their lives that I truly can't say that I appreciated. Sleep deprivation is simply not something I ever cherished and I was relieved when the worst of it came to an end. Does that mean I was wishing away their childhood? Partly, but only because I am a normal human being who reacts to sleep-torture in a healthy "I want it to end" sort of way. But while I hated that aspect, I adored the first smiles, giggles, kisses and discoveries, not to mention the softness of baby skin. Being a parent includes feeling exasperated, exhausted, frustrated, and irritated on a fairly regular basis. That's a true parenting experience. But if you manage to feel all of that, and still find joy when they run up for a cuddle, overcome a fear, or reach a new milestone, then you really are appreciating the wonder of their childhood.
You can follow her on Facebook