Many years ago, I read the transcript of “This Is
Water,” David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College.
It begins with a story of two fish swimming past an older fish, who asks them,
“How’s the water?” The two fish are dumbfounded. “What’s water?” they ask.
It’s more than a cute little story about fish. It's about awareness — the fish don't see what is right in front of them. It is also about the “essential lonesomeness of adult life.” The full impact of the day
in, day out. The “boredom, routine and petty frustrations” — the grind.
But it’s anything but
cynical. The central message is that we get to choose how we perceive people,
situations and events—what we're aware of—and we also choose what meaning we apply to our everyday
interactions and experiences—what we notice, what we value.
Wallace says: “‘Learning
how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and
what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you
pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because
if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally
The first time I read this,
it didn’t resonate much with me. I was in my early 30s, married but without
children. I loved my job, I didn’t have a terrible commute, and I had a lot of inspiring,
fun friends. I liked my life and didn’t have to consciously think my
way into being happy in it.
Then I became a mother, and the
message makes more sense to me now. I love my children, and I still love my
life. But that is not to say there aren’t some very long stretches of time
where I feel I am on pause, just waiting the hours away, frustrated that I’m unable
to do the many things I feel I really need to be doing.
Parenting has taught me a lot of things about patience — mostly that I need to have more — and about prioritizing and knowing when to let go.
In these moments, while I’m
making yet another Lego tower, putting together a puzzle with my daughter or
trying to interpret the desires of my 18-month-old, I have to consciously
decide not to look at my phone or worry that the house is getting messy.
This is the new water. I have
three children all within three years of each other. They have various
school and daycare schedules, but it boils down to my having two and a half
weekdays alone — time I use to work, go to the gym, run errands.
While the children are
obviously my priority, that does not mean that these other activities are not
necessities. But nor can motherhood be something I squeeze in between all the
other things I do. I need to make time to be more present when I’m with my
children. To be more engaged.
Perhaps this should be easy.
But having been a freelancer most of my career and waiting until I was two
weeks shy of 38 to have my first child, I had a long stretch of time in which
I had complete control over my schedule, and that is no longer so. It’s an
Wallace said we can think our way into
being less arrogant, to stop inherently believing that “everything in my own
immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of
the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.”
When they wake up every morning to begin their day in their own home, they shouldn’t be required to understand that I’ve got other stuff to do. They should expect me to be present for them.
Motherhood will make you crazy if you think
yours are the only needs that matter. But in some moments, it can be tough. When
I think about my life before children, I don’t miss the things I thought I
would miss: going out late, sleeping in, childfree vacations. The only thing that
feels remotely like sacrifice is that I can no longer keep doing what I’m doing
until I’m done doing it — be it working, eating, sleeping, talking — whatever.
Parenting has taught me a lot
of things about patience —mostly that I need to have more — and about prioritizing
and knowing when to let go. “I’m busy,” I said once to my son when he was
barely 2. He wanted me to help him open a box of crayons, and I needed a
couple of minutes to send an email. “I am also busy,” he said.
Fair point. Each of my
children is constantly caught up in trying to master an essential skill, be it
walking, potty training, talking, using scissors, writing or navigating new
social situations. They are extremely busy, and they have a lot of questions.
When they wake up every
morning to begin their day in their own home, they shouldn’t be required to
understand that I’ve got other stuff to do. They should expect me to be present for them. And I am not justified in being irritated by it.
I think of Wallace’s speech when it takes me 10 times longer than it should to walk
somewhere because my daughter wants to say hello and name every bug and
flower we see.
If I let myself believe I’ve
got something more important to do, then I am, indeed, hosed. It’s not a waste
of my time. It’s my responsibility, my job. But more than that, it’s my life,
and I want to be part of each moment. That is water