This is ridiculous: My husband, Marc, announces that there’s a bald eagle perched atop a telephone pole a few blocks from our home. Pretty sure we live in the suburbs of Denver, not on the outskirts of a national park (which is the only place I’ve seen a baldie, other than the zoo). What would a bald eagle—America’s majestic symbol of freedom—be doing here? Soaring wild and free over McDonald’s? Building a nest on the roof of Office Depot?
Still, Marc’s strapping the baby in her carrier and instructing my preschooler to find her shoes. They’re going to head down and get a closer look, he says, and he asks if I want to go along.
“Nah,” I say. I’m pretty sure what he’s seen is a particularly large crow, or maybe, if they’re lucky, a red-tailed hawk, but I say nothing. From the doorway, I watch the three of them take off down the block, my girls in floppy plaid hats, the younger bouncing herself visibly in the carrier, the older pumping her tiny legs and sprinting down the lawn. I feel bad for them. They’re going to be so disappointed.
I close the front door, and inside there are avalanches everywhere: dirty dishes, dirty laundry, overdue library books. I take one look, walk straight to my bedroom, and fall face-first into bed.
The day has gone just exactly like all the other days go: Kids up before the sun, kids acting like I haven’t fed them for days, one kid experiencing the emotional equivalent of a tsunami when I tell her she can’t wear a bedsheet-turned-princess-gown to the park. The other kid tugging at my last clean jeans with avocado-slimed hands, desperately saying something that sounds like “ees ees ees EEEES,” then collapsing in despair when I offer her milk.
On the way to the park that morning, some well-meaning older lady stopped on the sidewalk and cooed over the kids—”Well aren’t you just adorable?”—then leaned conspiratorially over and murmured to me, “They grow up so fast; enjoy every second.”
“I do,” I said, which seemed to satisfy her, so she walked away smiling and nodding.
And I do, in the sense that I would not trade staying home with my kids for a million dollars and a Pulitzer. At the same time, however, I’ve never felt less freedom in my day-to-day life. When I became a mother, I expected some of these restrictions. I knew going in that I’d no longer make plans to go out without booking babysitters, for instance, and I knew that I’d need to let nap times partially dictate my schedule. I knew I’d never get as much sleep as I wanted, and the days of spontaneously traveling to some foreign city were over.
I was not expecting the loss of freedom inside of my own head. I miss, especially, the space to just be able to think, in silence, for periods of more than two minutes. I’m introverted and introspective by nature, and these days whenever I’m starting to get lost in my thoughts, one of my kids pulls my attention back to whatever’s currently holding them captivated. It isn’t enough for them to see a garbage truck, for example; they need me to see it, too, and to acknowledge the shared experience: “Yes, wow, a green garbage truck.”
Even though I know that they are building developmentally appropriate skills for shared attention and language, and even though I know there will come a time when I’m the one tugging on their attention, I’m still exhausted by my children’s needs for me to repeat after them whatever they just said. Part of me rebels against this need to stay in the present moments. My physical freedom I can bear to part with, but my freedom of thought? Let me contemplate the next chapter of the book I’m writing while I play blocks, or listen to my favorite podcast while the kids have a dance party to the Frozen soundtrack. I kick hard against my children’s preferences, which means that I remain fully submerged in block-tower contemplation, or flourishing imaginary magic ice. I prefer to retain the right to wander off onto whatever particular train of thought happens to be leaving the station.
But when the kids are asleep and freedom of thought returns to me, do I really mean to board each train? What about the trains of thought that run round and round, with ever-increasing speed, on tracks of anxiety? The ones that only move backward into a past moment that I regret but can’t change? What about the times I leap from train to train, captive to every passing distraction? So often my thoughts turn out to be reactionary, or whizzing out of my control. Am I really buying those tickets consciously?
Perhaps real freedom would mean the ability to pick the destination of my thoughts, instead of being subject to whim, carried off in directions I don’t prefer to visit. If it’s possible to set my mind’s course, it sure seems like focusing on the present—as my children are always demanding—is good training.
Annie Dillard wrote, “Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.” I catch grace when I stop contemplating the stupid thing I said to a friend last week or even what I’m going to write in this very column later. I catch it when I forget about the thought-trip I wish I was taking and I immerse myself fully in what’s happening around me. These are moments of pure freedom, pure peace; my kids experience these moments every day. My children aren’t trying to ruin my freedom; they’re trying to share theirs. If I had embraced the moment, I would have gone off to find the eagle, instead of staying home in search of that freedom, where my thoughts immediately got caught in a flash flood of worries.
Soon enough, the back door swings open, and my family traipses in with flushed cheeks and wind-tousled hair.
“Well?” I ask Marc. “What was it?”
“It was a bald eagle,” he says, in an I-already-told-you tone.
“You’re kidding.” I stride to the front window and pull back the curtain. The kids clamor at my ankles, curiosity rekindled in spite of having just seen it up close. Can I see? Can I see? Their arms outstretched, the previous hour failing to rob them even of this small present grace. I pick them up, and together we gaze out. These thoughts pass through: What should I make for dinner? Did the mail come? I need to pay a doctor’s bill. When is my next writing deadline? My kids ask, “Where? Where is it? Where?”
“It’s still there,” Marc says, appearing beside me and pointing. “On the telephone pole past that big tree.”
I lean forward and squint in that direction, but, from where I stand, it’s too far away to see.