As I scraped leftovers off dinner plates, I held the portable phone against my cheek and arranged volunteers for my church's children's programs. It was 7 p.m. after a long day, but I was proud of my accomplishments. I loved the changed ambience of the kitchen as I transformed clutter and smudges to order. I love crossing calls off my list. Click, click, click; I was pleased that I was getting things done.
I didn't pay much attention when my sons wandered into the kitchen. After my fourth phone call, as I finished wiping the stove, I paused to glance at them.
Then my efficient adult reverie was shattered. The four-year-old was leaning back as far as possible in a kitchen chair, clearly mesmerized by the art of balance. The two-year-old had found a purple marker and almost finished coloring his arm. The six-year-old tapped a stick against the refrigerator, and sighed as he asked, "Mom, is this the last call? I want to play Stratego."
I immediately sprang into action, slamming the middle child's chair down while screaming, "Don't do that" and swiping the marker from the youngest's hand.
"You always yell at me," the four-year-old said as he burst into tears and ran from the room.
"I want my marker," howled the two-year-old.
My oldest child glared at me and whacked the refrigerator hard.
I was suddenly frazzled, tired, and frustrated. I desperately wanted to return to my adult world. I wanted the soothing sense of well-managed accomplishment.
My children care nothing for tasks accomplished. They live in the present moment, where life is experienced: The challenge of a chair almost balanced, the excitement of purple ink on pale skin, the engagement of a game.
I had a choice.
I could choose my world: "Go to your rooms until you can behave," "Let me get some paper and you can color," or "Why don't I put 'Toy Story' in the VCR?"
Or I could choose their world: Leave the dirty pans and my unfinished to-do list, grab up my youngest son, tell my oldest, "I have a great hiding place for a flag," and search for the four-year-old.
I stood for a long moment in that painful place between their world and mine. The choice was not unfamiliar. I make it daily, hourly.
Sometimes I easily slip across the line into hugs, games, and wildly colored pictures. Other times, I cannot. I hunch against their battering demands, preferring to enter checks into the computer and watch the numbers being added and subtracted and the piles of paper disappear. Sometimes I force myself to join them.
The moment is uncomfortable as I pull away from my adult world, where actions are rewarded with something finished.
In the kitchen, I leaned down and picked up my still-crying two-year-old. By the time I reached the stairs, he was chattering happily, and the oldest was wriggly as he plotted his game. The middle child greeted us flourishing a cardboard sword.
I sat on the floor in their room, back against the wall, weary. The youngest two prepared for a sword-fighting exhibition as I set up Stratego. Then the two-year-old stuck a pair of shorts on his head and danced with goofy abandon.
As I laughed, the linear world of the kitchen blew away. I was no longer tired, and my sons were bright bubbles of joy. I had entered their world: the present. I laughed again and reached out to hug my children, who had demanded I take this plunge.
I didn't regret it. The to-do list would keep.
Tracy Springberry lives with her husband and sons in Cheney, Wash. Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
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