My partner Karyn is a schoolteacher. Every day, she works in a place where her life is regulated by bells, divided into nonnegotiable blocks of time. She deals with 150 teenagers, and does so admirably. Yet she is a person who craves solitude, stillness, and spontaneity. At the end of her work day, she needs quiet and control over her time. Yet every day, she comes home to us her noisy, demanding, imperfect family.
I am a social person. I like to make plans and to do things. Too much empty space scares me. I feel content and happy accomplishing the items on a list. I work alone at home, where my regular enemy is isolation. At the end of my work day, I want to do things and see people.
This has been our dance. Two different sets of needs rubbing up against each other day after day, year after year. We struggle over it. We work at it. We learn from each other another way to be.
Last week we were up having one of our recurring conversations about how we spend time in our family. Karyn was saying, “It’s easy to always respond to the cries of the baby or to Eli’s screaming. What about my quiet despair of never having a peaceful moment when I’m at home? I don’t want to have to leave home or send Eli away to be able to relax in my own home. Our whole household revolves around Eli’s needs and his energy. It’s not right. He’s only one person in our family.”
It’s true. When we’re all together, Eli is always in the middle, interrupting and DEMANDING attention. I know she’s right, yet I fall back on my usual argument: “Some of it is just being four. Four is loud. Four is intense and full of energy. Other kids are doing what he’s doing.”
Karyn holds her ground: “When he was two, it was because he was a toddler. That was developmental. When he was three, it was developmental. At four, it’s still developmental. Now we have Lizzy and she has to go through all these stages, too. I can’t stand the idea of years like this. Our needs have got to matter, too. We have to find a way to establish some peace in our home.”
Her words settle in. Yet I wonder if she’s expecting too much of him. At four, can he learn about being peaceful? At forty, can I?
The next morning, on our way to preschool, I talk to Eli about the plan Karyn and I settled on the night before: “Mama Karyn and I talked last night and we’re going to start having some special family time. We’re going to all spend time together, but we’re each going to be working on our own project. Do you remember that night last week when you were building with your K’nexTM, Karyn was sewing Lizzy’s shirt, I was writing letters, and Lizzy was trying to turn over?”
“Well, that’s the kind of time we’re talking about. You’ll need to find something you can do mostly on your own, with only a little bit of help.”
“If I build a superconverter, I can do that on my own. But if I tried to build a space station, then I might need lots of help. So I’ll build a superconverter.”
“I think you’ve got the idea.”
Eli grew enthusiastic: “Let’s have family time every day! Let’s do it tonight!”
When Karyn and I are unified and clear in our intention, it’s amazing how quickly things change.
Later that day, I talked about our goal of peace with a friend. She passed on an idea from the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. He suggested having a bell anyone in the family could ring at any time. Whenever the bell sounds, everyone drops what they’re doing, closes their eyes, and follows their breath for a minute.
That night after dinner, we drifted into the living room. Eli chirped happily about our special family time. We sent him on a mission retrieving the small set of chimes my brother sent as a present a few years back. We set them out and explained their use.
I unplugged the phone and sat down to look over my taxes. Karyn picked up a murder mystery. Lizzy laid on the floor, flexed, and cooed. And Eli built small, manageable projects with his K’nexTM.
Several times he got up and rang the chimes, amazed at his new ability to make us stop what we were doing and do something else. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply and noisily, his first attempt at meditation. It was very endearing. And those moments of breathing together, though more frequent than I might have liked, did feel peaceful.
After an hour or so, Eli asked for his night-night bottle and Karyn put him to bed. Long after both kids were asleep, we sat together in the living room, relishing the small, quiet miracle we had made.
Laura Davis is the mother of four-year-old Eli, six-month-old Lizzy and stepmom to nineteen-year-old Bryan. This column first appeared in Growing Up in Santa Cruz.