My sister, Lindsey, and I spent last weekend with our parents in our childhood home in Colorado. This is not unusual; we see each other often. None of us, however, can remember the last time just the four of us were together without our husbands and/or children. Going to see last year’s Les Miserables movie together doesn’t count—too short, not quiet.
My sister’s two kids and my two kids are 3 and 6, which, apparently, are threshold ages for an intensifying focus on our own nuclear families. The schedules, conversations, emotions, concerns and celebrations of our households occupy an astounding volume of brain space. A two-day return to our original nuclear family seemed extremely calm.
When our parents visit us, they, too, are quickly drawn into the bustle of our lives. Our mother, especially, becomes consumed with her grandchildren, meals, activities and our colossal messes. When Lindsey and I visited them by ourselves, the focus was entirely different.
Lindsey and I went running without having to negotiate child care; ate breakfast without spilled juice or Cheerios; and lounged on our parents’ bed talking with our mom without a flying preschooler jumping on our heads. We had actual, sustained conversations making dinner together and then sitting down to eat it. We enjoyed entire glasses of wine without taking kids to the toilet or feeling guilty about ignoring them.
Outside, we raked garden beds, swept, pruned, hauled and cleaned out some ditches without interruption—fun, throwback chores that felt unfamiliarly productive. We watched The Sound of Music, lip-synched the songs, and retold the story in which our great-grandmother once mistook our mother for Julie Andrews.
It is interesting to revisit as adults the family configuration on which we base our own priorities and styles of parenting. In certain ways, both Lindsey’s and my approaches to our lives derive greatly from our parents’. A return to the four of us taking little walks, talking about traveling, working outside, and eating dinner together was affirming. Lindsey and I also have made life and family decisions differently from our parents—points of divergence that better fit us and our respective foursomes—and visiting home was reassuring there, too.
When we visit home with our families, we’re primarily mothers and our parents are mostly grandparents. Gender separation ramps up. Chaos and disorder reign right alongside a constant consciousness of routine and schedule. The number of conversations one person is conducting at any one time ranges between two and five. Everyone is more on.Fewer distractions and shifts in focus—and being able to focus in the first place—make interactions more relaxed. Our relationships, which seem always to be changing and staying the same, become more about relating and less about juggling touchpoints. Last weekend, this allowed for working on sustained yard projects, as well as hanging out with leisurely snacks and dinner outside. “You work hard, but the hours are good,” is one of the tenets of our parents’ lives.
The yard work was for our mom, who is recovering from surgery. She’s not an easy rester, and recovering from major surgery is perhaps the only way she’d ever delegate work. Most of the time—nearly always—she’s the one doing everything for everyone else, so it was high time we were there to focus solely on her. It was a gift for her, she said. It was for us, too.
For the sincerest “thank you” and “I love you,” spending time is leagues better than spending words, money or anything else. The message travels both ways. The time is intentional for everyone. “The gift is to the giver,” writes Walt Whitman.
For Mother’s Day, I’m spreading it out. This weekend, I just want to hang with the family that makes me a mom. Last weekend, it was a gift to be able to be with my sister, to help out and spend time with our mother.Today, I’m planting the transplants from my mom’s garden. Hers is a crossroads of rake-blistered hands and dirty fingernails, thoughtful planting and improvisational plunking, trellising conversation and quiet reflection, listening and holding forth, laughing and stewing, telling kids not to ride bikes over the columbine and helping them cut flowers for bouquets, pruning and nonintervention, time spent and time received. It’s like my mother’s kind of motherhood—and I love spending time with its offshoots in my garden, too. Thanks, Mom.