The Future May be Bright, But Today is All that Matters

“It goes so fast.”

“This is the best age.”

If you have small kids, you’ve heard this advice from other parents – oftentimes complete strangers – who have adult children. It’s typically unsolicited, and doled out in a public place in the midst of a tantrum.

“Enjoy them now – it doesn’t get any easier.”

You nod and smile politely, thanking the elder for such sage advice as you drag your little one by the arm from the restaurant or store while whispering threats through clenched teeth about taking away treats or TV. You sense, but ignore, the disapproving glances of onlookers as the tantrum intensifies. A smile on your face, fire in your belly.

You’re soaked with perspiration after battling your child into her car seat. It’s like a scene out of one of those Discovery Channel fishing shows where a burly crewman struggles to haul a giant bluefin tuna into the boat.

Click! Sigh.

She’s asleep in the car, head slumped at an impossible angle. She won’t nap in her bed now, but you can’t bring yourself to wake her up. You take the long route home. A moment of peace.

You reflect back on the advice you just received. It was an attempt at empathy, but spend 24 hours with my child, you think, and then maybe you’ll change your tune.

Your song comes on the radio. The deep breathing of your now-slumbering toddler soothes. Your edges soften.

Maybe they’re right. Sure it’s embarrassing as hell when little Penelope wings a sausage link into the head of the guy in the next booth, but it probably does get harder as they get older. Help with homework, back talk, Snapchat, bad hair days, school dances, driving, drinking, college applications, fraternities/sororities…maybe that lady in Target was onto something, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

“I got this,” you say to yourself.

Thwack! Sippy cup bangs into the dashboard. She’s up.

“It will get easier,” you mutter. It has to.

But will it?

Life is Hard, But that’s the Point

Our lives consist of various stages. For most they’re along the lines of elementary school, middle school, high school, college, job, new job, marriage, kids, retirement, grandkids. We categorize memories (“Remember that one time in high school?”) and friends (“He’s a college friend” or “She’s a work friend”) around these formative life stages. And most of us, while in a particular stage, spend a great deal of our time looking forward with hope and anticipation to the next one, or back with nostalgia on the last one. That’s because the stage we’re in always seems hard.

Remember when you thought college was tough, and couldn’t wait to start earning that first paycheck? Then you entered the world of cubicles, corporate jargon and mind-numbing, soul-sucking weekly staff meetings. Three hours of class time and two hours of homework per day, summer break and endless keg parties seem pretty good in comparison.

Marriage before kids was hard, right? Then little ones came along and you plumbed new personal depths of frustration and exhaustion, finding it difficult to carve out time for yourself, let alone your spouse.

Retirement, that elusive land of cruise ships and country clubs…but for the doctor appointments and monthly budget.

While the promise of tomorrow is seductive – I’ll have more time, more money, the kids will be easier – it’s rarely easier than today. Just different, full of new and unique challenges. That’s why it’s dangerous to go through life believing that happiness and contentment are always right around the corner. More often than not you turn that corner and all you see is another one – up a hill and a block ahead.

So instead of stopping to appreciate where we are in life, we keep our heads down and plod ahead to what’s next. And we peer back, wistfully. We forget that what made the past seem easy is that we’ve grown – the struggles make us stronger, and prepare us to tackle the next stage in life. And the future seems bright because it’s an open box – we can fill it with hopes and aspirations, while setting aside the pain and discomfort that inevitably result from chasing down dreams.

The point is that the stage that we happen to be in at the moment isn’t distinctly hard. Life itself is hard. And that’s the beauty of it. Because, as the old saying goes, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey…as rocky and difficult as it might be.

Which is why it’s important to stop and appreciate this moment.

Cherish these Moments

This post has been a bit of a personal pep talk for me. This struggle is real and ever-present in my life, and Heather’s too. That scene I described at the opening – that’s a personal narrative of most of our encounters with polite society. Times two. Our twin girls are 2.5 years old and are testing the boundaries of the “terrible twos,” and testing the boundaries of our patience and sanity at the same time. People often try to comfort us that “things will get easier.”

This fall we were at a playground in Traverse City with the kids. An elderly woman was there with her daughter and grandkids. Heather and I were having a difficult moment with the twins – they seemed to think they could safely navigate the monkey bars, and weren’t happy with our lack of confidence in their gymnastic abilities.

As the twins screamed and squirmed, the woman looked at me, a smile on her face and twinkle in her eye, and said, “Cherish these moments. These are the best years.” I nodded and smiled politely.

After a particularly frustrating time with the twins over the weekend, I found myself reflecting back on that encounter at the playground. The kind woman who we met was expressing empathy, yes, but more than that. I believe that, in her simple statement, she was imparting some wisdom from her life.

She knew, better than anyone at that late stage in her life, that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Just today. She was emphasizing the importance of living in the moment, and of being present – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally – for those you love. And that the best part of being a parent is not all the easy moments, but the difficult ones that test your limits. Because true satisfaction comes from the sacrifices and investments you make to enable the growth of your kids, even though those dividends may be long in coming.

It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to try to embrace the terrible twos. After all, it’s not going to be any easier when they’re 16 and some shaggy haired boys show up wanting to take them out on dates. Well, at least that’s what everyone tells me.

LifeJay Harrington