When I was 8 years old I had a purple bathing suit. There is a picture of me standing on the beach in my purple suit on Assateague Island, my hand touching a wild pony. By my body language I am afraid, smiling a forced smile, my tall, childish body leaning away from the pony. I remember the picture-taking, the wild ponies on the beach, my father pushing me to step outside my comfort zone, pet the pony, do something for the camera. A snapshot for a photo album that is packed in a box in my parents’ basement or maybe it’s made it into the attic here at my own house. I don’t remember.
What I do remember is that summer. The two weeks our family spent camping on Maryland’s Assateague Island. We would go to the beach in the morning, and I’d barely come out of the water long enough to slug down Kool-Aid lemonade out of a Coleman jug cooler. The days would fly by, and I could imagine nowhere I’d rather be than riding the waves, swimming in the swells and, when I didn’t time it quite right, getting pummeled in the surf, swallowing gallons of salt water and chasing it with warm lemonade.
The only childhood memories that can compete with those days in the ocean were days spent roaming a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona with my dog. Both summers filled with freedom and discovery, with days that flew by.
Last week, as I am driving my own children home, my pre-adolescent son notices murals painted on a concrete viaduct supporting the train tracks.
“Why do people do all that graffiti?”
“It’s not graffiti, it’s art!” my teenage daughter responds. “The village paints the blocks white, and then artists can paint them. They are supposed to look that way.”
“Well,” says my son, “if they would have advertisers instead of artists, they would make a lot more money.”
His sister attacks his priorities with a disparaging remark about money versus art. I try to mitigate my daughter’s disgust by pointing out the benefits of her brother’s profit-tuned commentary: “When your brother grows up, we will all get nice Christmas presents.”
My teenage daughter says, “Yeah, well, I’ll want an iPhone 60.”
Her brother responds, “iPhone 60? You’ll be dead by then.”
“No I won’t.”
“Yes you will.”
“No I won’t.”
“Yes you will!”
“No I won’t! If the iPhone 6 is now, in 50 years, I’ll be, OMG!”
“Yeah, you’ll be as old as Mom.”
My age is now calculated by my children in iPhone launches.
My daughter continues, “In 15 years I’ll be 30. I’ll be so old. Life goes by so fast.” She pauses and then adds, “I wonder where I’ll be when I’m 30.”
Most of my life has not been spent in the waves of Assateague Island or wandering freely with my dog. Life is waking up exhausted, too little of this and too much of that, boundaries, demands, college exams, graduate school, crap jobs, good jobs, work projects, school projects, Popsicle sticks and Crayola products, pulling into the gas station, filling the tank, tracking the price of gas and recycling Gatorade bottles, fluorescent lights, crabby cashiers and big box stores. None of it fills me with joy.
It is this question that puzzles me: If I have become this person who is all work and no play, a place where fun comes to die, why am I so happy experiencing this amazing gift of life that God has granted me? Why do the days fly by even when I’m not having fun?
Scientists tend to agree with the metaphor, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Research supports that people feel time passing faster when feeling positive emotions than when experiencing negative feelings. But researchers also maintain that just being happy and content will not make time pass more quickly. Maybe not, if you measure brainwaves on a machine, but I don’t think you can measure joy. It’s a gift — magical, memorable and not something scientists can dissect.
I have two kids who play hockey. I drive almost 2,000 miles every month getting them to practices, games and tournaments. During the hours spent driving car pools, I hate listening to my 11-year-old son and his friends fight over anything: how long it takes to get out of the locker room; which superhero is the most powerfullest; which is cuter, kittens or puppies. If you could measure my brain waves for all of that, I am sure any data you gathered during car pool would support the thesis that hockey season lasts forever.
But after we are home and I’ve hung up the stinky gear in the garage and parked the trashed car, I go into the house, walk through the dirty kitchen and across salt-stained floors and up to my son’s room. All the boys are home safe and the day is done. I tuck my son into bed, feel his arms around my neck and his kiss on my cheek. I turn off his light and leave the room giggling to myself over how 11-year-old hockey players can fight over anything, even kittens vs. puppies.
“Mom, what is it? Why are you laughing?”
Despite the negative feelings, the dirty floors and the fatigue, my perception of my life is that the experience of parenting my children is amazing and joyful. I go to bed exhausted every night and can’t believe how fast the days go by.
When I was a student at Notre Dame my friends and I would often ask each other, “Are we having fun yet?” I don’t know. So much of life seems more like work, hard work. Still, the days fly by just as they did when I was playing in the waves on Assateague Island, reaching out to wild ponies and smiling for the camera, a shutter click, a blink of an eye, a memory that to my children would be 40 iPhone launches away.
Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. Email her at email@example.com.