When Eli was four, he used to play a game where he held his cupped hands in front of my face.
“I have a present for you!” he would say, and then fling his arms wide. If he’d had a handful of confetti, it would have rained down over the entire kitchen — but there was no confetti.
“It’s not nothing!” He would shout. “It’s AIR!”
It was also kind of a gift that there was no confetti, honestly.
But that sounds right: my children give me air, which is breath, which is spirit.
They take my breath away sometimes too, and drink all the air out of the room on occasion, but they do bring me air. Which is breath. Which is life.
That’s one of the gifts of parenthood, along with the macaroni necklaces and painted handprints. (Or if your kids have Pinterest, mod-podged photo coasters and chrysanthemums arranged to spell “M-O-M.” Same-same.)
Breath is, I think, even better than cards and chocolates and dubiously scented bath products.
Though Eli woke me up this morning by taking my face in his hands and saying: “Today, I’d like to spend some quality time, but not with you. With dad. Okay?”
So there’s also the gift of humility.
When I first had a baby, I thought the real gifts of parenthood were the baby features — the milk breath and feathery hair, the long eyelashes on peachy cheeks. But those are gone so, so quickly, replaced by the next thing and the next and the next: chubby elbow dimples and misspoken words and tricycle pedaling and questions about the nature of the universe.
Every age of every kid has its own sweetness, but those aren’t the gifts. Those are the icing. Those are the fancy little decorative tags on the package.
The real gifts, I think, are in all the things you start to understand.
For example, you start to understand about time. You start to see that it has absolutely nothing to do with the laws of physics or with linear motion. You learn how time can stand still and zip past, both at once, every day.
This can be terrifying, because if you just blink or, heaven forbid, sneeze, your baby (who you thought was the gift) disappears, and in her place is a teenager (who, it turns out, is still a gift).
This quirk of time can also be wonderful, because it means that you won’t be encrusted in a thin film of bodily fluids for the rest of your life. Terrifying, wonderful: it’s a paradox.
You learn that time sometimes plays on repeat.
The things you thought were done yesterday are undone this morning, and you have to do them all over again. Possibly you are caught in an eternal do-over, or an ongoing ritual. If you were appeasing a volcano, well, it would be appeased.
You learn that time is made of layers. You look at your eleven-year-old and you can see the baby-person he once was, and the two-year-old, and the five-year-old, all layered one over the other, and his grown-up selves are all there, too, just waiting to become.
But the best thing about your new understanding of time is this:
You learn that every day is new, and that you are new every morning.
That means you get to practice being who you are and who you mean to be, every morning. It means you can decide that this day is different than the ones that came before, and you can be different too, if you practice different things.
Sometimes I think that parenting is made of relationship, and practice. That’s what it’s made of. Those two things together.
We can practice patience and kindness, and some days the practice goes well, and some days not so great, but every day we have a chance to practice again.
We can practice being brave.
Most of the time we don’t even have a choice about that one, we just get to do it. Things happen. We can armor up or we can show up with our thin skin, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter which scary thing it is, either. The bravery is in the showing up.
We can practice pretending we know all the answers, or instead we can remember that it’s okay to not have all the answers. We can practice telling the truth, even when the truth sounds like I don’t know. Even when the truth sounds like I don’t really have it all together. Even when the truth sounds like How did I get to be in charge?
We can practice being in charge.
Practice is part of the deal.
We can practice new things.
New patterns, new feelings, new ways of being in the world. We are not bound by the past, we can set our old ways down and keep walking.
We are new every morning, beautiful and terrifying as that may be.
Understanding that is a gift. It’s not as obvious as a “world’s best mom” mug, or new socks, or an acrostic poem (OverwhelMed / Heart bursting with lOve / SnoT-wiped-on / Hopeful / WorriEr / WarrioR). But we will take it.
At my house, we practiced meditative breathing the other day. (This is something we weird Californians do. Do not be alarmed.) In the nose, out the mouth.
I was distracted by little ones and kept getting all out of sync. In on the out breath, out in a whoosh instead of a soothing sigh. In, out, out, in — I considered giving up. OKAY OKAY I did. I gave up. But I tried again, and I caught on. There was a rhythm, and I could take part.
Deep breaths. We can practice those, too.
Breath, which is air, which gives life.
He’s right, it’s not nothing. It’s a new thing. Breathe it in.