For the past three nights, I've sat at the computer with hands poised and thoughts racing as I tried to write our annual holiday letter, only to be interrupted by a tiny voice calling, "Mommy, will you sit with me while I go nighty-night?" Hoping my tone of voice doesn't reflect my mounting frustration, I give my standard line, "In a minute, buddy."
I'm guilty of using that line on my children so often that it's become part of their vocabulary (which they recite to me at the most inopportune times). I continue typing, hoping my son will drift off to sleep.
But the interruption has caused my mind to wander, and I think of two more items to add to my holiday to-do list. I return to writing, feeling pressured by undone tasks and the lack of time to complete them.
Some time later, the innocent voice calls down again. "Mommy? Is a minute up yet?"
"Almost," I say, hurrying to get down the rest of the paragraph and quickly moving on to the next, feeling increasingly guilty. Just when I'm convinced that the need for my presence has given way to slumber, I hear, "Mommmmeeeee?"
My husband meets me at the stairs and hands off our newborn, who is crying and hungry. She needs Mommy, too.
My son, Jack, who's 3, is a rough and tumble kind of guy by day and a sensitive mommy's boy by night. The bedtime routine consists of a bath, tooth-brushing, and reading - quality time with Daddy. For me, that usually means an hour of uninterrupted free time. Lately, however, Jack has been wanting me to come sit with him in the dark for a few minutes once he gets into bed. Sometimes we talk, sometimes he sings me songs, and sometimes we are just quiet.
With the baby nestled at my chest, Jack drifting off to sleep, and my daughter in her bedroom across the hall, I realize there is nothing more important than what I'm doing at this very minute.
The holidays have a way of bringing out the best and worst in me. In my attempts to preserve traditions and family memories by making homemade gifts, sending cards, and participating in elaborate family outings, I'm frequently tense and hurried. When December days are evaluated by how many items get checked off the long list of obligations, I admit that I often let the important parts of life yield to the urgent.
On this night, however, I am relearning a lesson that life teaches me over and over. To be fully present in the present, focusing only on the moment at hand, is the most precious gift we can give - to others and to ourselves. With each sway of the rocking chair, my breathing slows and deepens. My holiday to-do list no longer matters, and, to my surprise, I feel completely fulfilled.
Living in the present is easy when the moment is "big." It's a struggle, though, on average, humdrum days when I find myself anticipating the future and replaying the past.
But the only time I feel truly connected - to others and to myself - is when I'm fully present in the moment. Then I am free to be who I am, unburdened by constraints of time and self-imposed expectations.
It's a gift I hope to give my family and friends in the new year, so that even the smallest of moments - such as sitting with a child as he falls asleep - can be recognized and appreciated as a joyous opportunity to be present in the present.
• Lynne Ticknor lives in Clarksville, Md., with her husband and three children.