“Can I ask you a personal question?” a wealthy, ambitious lawyer asked me recently at a dinner.
“You just did.” I smiled and tried to move away. I knew what was coming. It always somehow worked its way into even the most innocuous of conversations.
But he ignored my attempt to end our exchange and continued anyway. “Why don’t you start working full time now? With your education and intelligence, it’s such a waste for you to be home.”
I felt my shoulders tighten as anger rose up inside of me. I knew that question had been coming since I was the only writer and stay at home mother in a room full of judges and lawyers in my mother’s dining room. But I was used to it, and I had all my answers ready. How I had completed my Masters in Family Therapy degree while giving birth to and caring for three children under the age of three. How I had worked part time as a psychologist. How I had run parenting and self -esteem groups, and published extensively. How it was proven in every study that children need and depend on their mothers’ love and attention. How they need maternal devotion in order to thrive.
I stay home with my children because I’m selfish.
But I didn’t say any of that because I knew he had a point. There was still a part of me that wanted the money and applause. So I decided to be honest.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” I said. “I stay home with my children because I’m selfish.”
I let that sink in for a few seconds before I explained. “It’s true that I could be on the commuter train at 7am and hire a full time nanny. But then she would be the one who gets to wake up each of my children and give them breakfast. She would see their sleepy smiles and hear their dreams. She would get to watch them get onto the yellow school bus. I’m selfish because I want that for myself. And I could find a good baby nurse. But then she would be the one to see my baby’s first smile and watch his first steps. She would hold him when he cries from an earache or a scary dream. She would be the one to rock him and comfort him. I’m selfish. I want that for myself.”
I wasn’t sure he understood what I was trying to say, but I continued anyway.
“I’m sure my kids would be fine if a babysitter opened the door when they came home from school. Children are resilient. And they’re going to grow up either way. It’s not my kids who will miss out if I can’t read them a bedtime story and say Shema with them before they go to sleep. It’s me. I’ll miss out. And I’m selfish. I want to be the one to serve them a warm snack and listen to how their day was. And when they grow up, I will know that I had these precious years that I spent with them. Because work doesn’t run away but time does.”
The man sat silently for half a minute as he mulled over my answer. “Wow, lucky kids. Never heard that before. That sounds like a secret to happiness. You should write about that.”
“Maybe I will,” I said as I picked up my glass of water.
As Mother’s Day arrives I think about that conversation and about the “gifts” that we receive every day from our children. Here are four of the many gifts from my children that I am keeping for as long as I can:
1. The Gift of Play. Children help us hold onto the joy of play. Whether it’s finger painting in the kitchen or running across a soccer field. Climbing on the playground or going upside down on the newest roller coaster. Hiking through the forest as the spring flowers bloom, children notice the little things that we too often overlook. The rainbow in the puddle. The butterfly on the log. The way the wind feels when you run together across the grass. The freedom of watching your kite take flight and almost touch the sky.
2. The Gift of Stories. Children give us stories. Sometimes they don’t make sense. Sometimes they go on endlessly with random pauses in the middle for full effect. But if you take the time to listen, you will learn some incredible lessons. About how the world looks from an innocent perspective, not yet tainted by the world. How the imagination can overcome so many obstacles that often block our way. And how sometimes a story doesn’t have to have a definite ending. Sometimes it’s the telling itself that connects us and teaches us and helps us see new possibilities.
3. The Gift of Giving. Children need us the way no one else ever has or will. They need food, clothing and shelter. They need love and guidance and warmth. But perhaps more than they need to receive, we need and want to give. The ability to give is a gift that deepens each time we use it. It’s a blessing that transforms us. It moves us beyond our narrow definitions of self and expands the potential of who we can become.
4. The Gift of Growth. Children embody hope itself. From the sweet newborn scent of our babies through the many ‘firsts’ that every child goes through, raising a child is an exercise in constant beginnings. The first tooth. The first step. The first day of school. The first time she learns to ride a bike. The first time he drives on his own. The first date. The list goes on and on. As parents, we are not only witnesses to growth, but we are partners in each new stage. And we grow in ways that we could never have dreamed of before we were blessed with children.
Maybe we have this whole Mother’s Day thing backwards. Perhaps it’s a day for mothers to appreciate the gifts our children have already given us. On this Mother’s Day I keep these gifts, among many others, close to my heart. And I whisper my secret to my children as I watch them sleeping, a sliver of moonlight falling across the floor.
“I love being your mother. Thank you for the gift of your presence in my life. It’s a blessing that I’m going to keep just for me.”