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What David Foster Wallace Taught Me about Motherhood

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.

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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 hosed.”

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 adjustment.

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.

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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

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Image via Vimeo/PatrickButley

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