Do you ever think back on how you imagined life to look once you had kids? It’s not something I do often; the messy, loud and lovely tangle of real life has a way of pushing those hazy, long-ago hopes and dreams into the back corners of my mind. But something I am sure of is that there was always going to be a lot more catching tadpoles in jam-jars, reading books on blankets in the backyard, flying kites on blustery beaches and floating paper boats in puddles. In short, I always imagined there would be more life of the adventurous, memory-making kind.
What I never envisioned (because you don’t, do you?) was this much laundry, this much television, this much time spent in supermarkets, this much fighting with my kids over packing up Lego. Yes, occasionally there are sandcastles, cubbies and creeks, but in reality so much more of life with kids is mundane and humdrum. That’s okay. I accept that a sizeable chunk of life for most of us is routine rather than spectacular. I also know that it’s possible to find sweet moments with my kids in the midst of the banal: a “ballet” routine by my preschooler while I’m washing the dishes, a love note slipped next to the pancakes by my six-year-old, hearing the two of them in the next room hooting with laughter over bad Knock Knock jokes. Even still, I’m aware – achingly so – that next year my youngest starts kindergarten, and there will be far less opportunities to just hang out with him. I want to make this short time count.
My husband is much better than me at adventuring with the kids. As he’s a pastor and works a lot on weekends, he gets a day off during the week. He uses this day to look after our three-and-a-half year old while I work. When I arrive home from school on Tuesday afternoons, the two boys regale me with tales of their adventures, which usually involve a journey somewhere via public transport, and have at times included a building site, a baby octopus in a shell, dolphins, a ball pit and a dragon boat race. My husband doesn’t overthink things, he just does them. I admire the way he manages to squeeze every potential adventure out of the day – whether it be catching the O-Bahn bus to the bookshop with Elijah, or taking the kids to a new playground after picking Lily up from school.
There were plenty of things I could have “got done” on Friday, but it occurred to me that none of those things were overwhelmingly pressing, and that all of them were completely forgettable. So in the spirit of prioritising adventures over laundry, Elijah and I packed the helicopter lunchbox and went in search of ducks and fish with whiskers. The Adelaide Botanic Gardens is one of my favourite places to visit – I love that once inside I instantly feel calm and hidden and far away, even though I’m actually only minutes from the city. The garden has added significance for my family, as my grandfather was the director for many years, and my dad grew up with it as his backyard.
I let Elijah pick the path, and followed him as he ran past towering clumps of bamboo and low hanging bell-shaped flowers, over lumpy roots that nudged up the paving and beneath leafy canopies that blocked out the light. The world with all its rules about where you can and can’t run and climb and yell and throw is not always an easy place for a little boy who recently asked to change his name to Aeroplane. Giving him the freedom to lead the way – to run when he wanted and dawdle when he preferred – was such a refreshing joy for both of us.
People talk about an unexpectedly breathtaking experience as a Wow Moment; according to the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary, it is “an introspective moment when you realise how freaking great your life really is.” One of the reasons that I enjoy outings with my three-and-a-half year old is that it’s not unusual for the whole trip to be a string of Wow Moments for him (in that regard, he’s pretty much the polar opposite of your typical teenager). Putting money in the parking meter: Wow Moment. Realising that the car is parked next to a toilet block: Wow Moment. Walking over a bridge, rubbing your half-eaten banana on Mummy’s leg, finding a feather that looks a bit like a caterpillar: all Wow Moments. I find it near impossible to be bored and cynical in the face of his sense of wonder.
We found our way to the immense conservatory. Standing with Elijah inside the vast, eerily empty jungle I had the sudden spine-tingling sensation that a T-Rex was about to crash through the towering palms. The spell was soon broken by a noisy primary school class. I couldn’t help but smile at the two boys racing ahead across the bridge despite the teacher’s protests – I was happy to be off-duty.
Next we visited the lake and threw bread to a pack of belligerent ducks. The creepy whiskered carp appeared to have been cleaned out of the water since our last visit, but five hungry turtles, shells big as dinner plates, poked their wrinkled necks and bald old-man heads out of the water in search of treats.
Elijah selected a patch of lush grass in the shade of a giant pine tree for our picnic lunch. We sat on our rug, snuggling, giggling, munching our sandwiches, and pondering the diet of lizards. We made a video with my phone of a banana aeroplane, which Elijah thought was the funniest and best thing ever (#Wow Moment!). After lunch we explored the vivid dahlia garden, climbed a tree, played shops with leaves and seed pods and examined tiny fish and enormous Amazon Waterlily pads in their special glass pavilion. It was a good day.
The thing that I’ve realised about adventures with little kids is that they don’t need to be grand or epic – at least not from an adult perspective – they just require you to step outside your routine for a couple of hours. The most successful adventures often seem to be the ones where the agenda is flexible, and where I allow myself to become lost in small details along with my child: a plane that drags a thread of vapour across the sky; a crocodile-shaped cloud; a bug – always a bug – with a shiny shell; a funny-shaped stick.
The best adventures are also the ones where I find myself lost in the small details that make my child who he is: his purposeful walk along the path, green lunchbox in hand; the undisguised wonder and delight in his voice at each new discovery; the way he actually stops moving long enough for me slip my arm around him on the picnic rug; the gleeful laugh that bursts out when he knows he’s being cheeky. Last week in the garden, I had my own introspective moment when I realised how freaking great my kid really is. Oh he can be stubborn and impulsive and throw killer tantrums, but one-on-one, I honestly couldn’t think of better company to adventure with. Wow Moment.
Once I looked forward and tried to imagine life with kids, and one day I know that I’ll look back on my reality of life with kids. Maybe I’ll remember that at times parenting small children felt like a never-ending slog, but I hope that’s not the overriding memory. I have about nine months until Elijah starts kindergarten. Nine months in which I get to spend more time with him, and possibly have more influence on the way he sees the world than anyone else. It would be all too easy to let this time slip through my fingers without a lot of conscious thought – between work and church commitments, Kindergym, swimming lessons, housework and homework, days pass quickly. But among all the voices competing for my attention, one voice that I don’t want to overlook is the one pondering the question of whether or not lizards eat bees. This year I want to choose more adventures.