At 8 a.m. on April 20, 2011 Phoenix Michael Reisser, all 6 pounds, 14 ounces of him, arrived safe, sound and crying lustily. There was, to be sure, great joy and celebration among family and friends. There was also a fair share of fatigue to go around, since Phoenix’s mom had labored through the wee hours of the previous night. I held him for a few minutes that morning, got a glance or two later that day, and then finally took an unhurried look the following evening after things had quieted down.
As I spent some time studying Phoenix, now sporting a little less of his newborn facial puffiness, it dawned on me that he looked an awful lot like his father – my son Chad – at the same age. I have to confess that my first look at Chad was marred by distraction and discouragement. Teri had had a cesarean section and was miserable. My mental refrain was, “Our lives will never be the same,” and I didn’t mean that in a good way. My mom, on the other hand, drank in Chad’s face and form with utter abandon. Indeed, she modeled something Teri and I gradually learned to do with our own kids, and have relished as grandparents: being fully present with someone.
I have come to the conclusion that this particular life skill doesn’t come naturally. In fact, I think it has to be cultivated, especially in the 21st century. Indeed, if being fully present was challenging when our kids were young 30+ years ago, I suspect it is far more difficult for parents now. Added to the daily stuff of life, and whatever inner distractions might be rumbling around in our brain (angst, ambition, etc.), we now have mobile devices, social networking, hundreds of cable channels and all of our favorite websites competing for our ever-besieged attention.
A friend of ours has written about a profound challenge in her life, one that brings this issue into poignant focus. Dr. Elaine Eng is an extraordinarily insightful psychiatrist who teaches all over the world, often travelling unaccompanied — a courageous choice, given that she is blind. In the thick of her residency in obstetrics/gynecology, one in which she was acutely torn between the extreme demands of training and the needs of her young children, Elaine’s vision began to fail. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that would before long rob her of her sight. Knowing that she would soon be blind, Elaine quit her residency and became acutely focused on a different priority. As she relates in her book The Transforming Power of Story,
I now had the opportunity to be a full-time mom to my babies and watch them grow while I still had some eyesight left. Those images and memories are permanently ingrained in my mind…
I enjoyed every aspect of motherhood: feeding Brian and Gen, singing songs to them, teaching them, reading to them, and playing with them. I still had some eyesight left so these activities were possible. I also could see their little happy faces, images that are now ingrained in my memory as clear as a photo album.1
Imagine finding out that you would not be able to see your children change as they grow up, or gaze on their babies, should they start their own families. You would, like Elaine, burn the images of their faces and hair and hands into your memory. But it is all too easy to have our physical faculties intact and yet be blind and deaf to what is happening now with those who are closest to us – especially our children as they are growing up. The faces in front of us will never look the same. Their voices, and the way they form words and sentences, and the ideas brewing in their young minds are constantly changing. We have, of course, the ability to take photos and videos to capture those sights and sounds, and they can be a great treasure, especially after many years have passed. But how often do we actually take the time to study those images from the past – especially when we won’t take the time to study what’s in front of us now?
Teri had I have been blessed with grandchildren who live nearby, and we have had numerous opportunities to watch them, in the fullest sense of the word. When our granddaughter Ella was a couple of weeks old, we did our first official babysitting job while her mom and dad went out for dinner one night. We simply sat on the sofa for two hours, passing her back and forth and studying her face and tiny features. One afternoon when Ella was 2, Teri spent nearly 90 minutes sitting on the floor with her, observing a prolonged “show and tell” session involving the contents of a dollhouse. Teri felt no need to be somewhere else or to “move things along.” She was completely undistracted, fully present and attentive for this experience. She realized how rarely she had been “in the moment” like this, and wondered how often we are able to be fully present with our kids or grandkids or spouse – or, for that matter, a good book, a beautiful piece of music, a sunset, the night sky, or the God who made all of them?
I have to confess that I have spent far too much time not being in the moment, but instead living with half of my attention somewhere else, thinking or planning or worrying about something other than the person or experience in front of me. However, I think I’m getting better in this area as the decades pass, and can say without hesitation that our grandchildren have contributed mightily to that improvement. We’re thus very thankful not only for Phoenix’s safe and sound arrival and for his mom’s equally safe and sound birth experience, but also for another chance to study carefully a little person who changes our universe.
©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.
Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.
1. Elaine Leong Eng, MD and David B. Biebel, DMin, The Transforming Power of Story. (Roseland, Florida, Healthy Life Press, 2010), pp. 19-20.