Vacationing with a four-year-old is a bit of an oxymoron. The two words just don’t go together. I know this already, yet my expectations and reality continue to collide. As my family spends three weeks in Ireland visiting family and friends, I’m getting another reminder. My other daughter is eight now, old enough to keep up with many of the activities my husband and I enjoy—going for long scenic walks, eating out, browsing in bookstores, lounging in cafes. This isn’t always so for the four-year-old. Today, on a beautiful (yet somewhat long) walk, I felt my agitation rise with her every whine and fuss. My husband and eight-year-old wandered ahead, while my youngest cried every time I let go of her hand. Ever the vigilant family photographer, I continued to take pictures along the way, and from these shots, it looks like an idyllic outing. And it was, except for my frustration.
The problem is wholly mine, I realize. She’s only doing what most four year-olds are programmed to do. Her legs are short, she tires easily, and her desire to be close to me trumps everything else.
Since our trip began, I’ve been asking the girls what the best part of their day was.
“Going to the model train exhibit,” the eight-year-old said.
“Holding Mommy’s hand when we walked,” the four-year-old said.
For me, one of the hardest parts of motherhood is being able to comfortably fall into it and let go. Too often my first instinct is resistance--walk faster, stop complaining, finish your dinner, for god’s sake, just try the carrot! Much of this is leftover from those early years when every hour of the day was a physical exhaustion. I was not built for that stage of parenting, and while I did my best, it was a challenge not to be subsumed by it. I envy the women I see who so clearly adore spending time with their babies and toddlers, who just fall headfirst into their time together. For me, my mind was always going a million miles an hour, soaring far from the moment, even while I loved my children fiercely. I acknowledge this now with equal parts shame and relief.
We’re exiting that stage. The daily trials are simple and painless compared to the days of sleep deprivation and never being able to take my eyes off a running toddler. Yet my mentality is a step behind these advances, and I’m still quick to anxiety or exasperation. I need to learn to slow down, rather than persuade them to speed up. There's no need to hurry, I must remind myself. I see the speed in the grown up shape of my eight-year-old's face, her mouth full of holes where her baby teeth used to be. I see it in the growing peace in my house when each child heads to her own room to play. I need to take a lesson from the four year-old, who meanders at her own pace, never in a hurry, perfectly capable of getting lost in the moment without worry of what’s ahead or behind.
“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked her last night.
“When the sun came out,” she answered with her easy smile.
Oh yes. There it is.