In the Time of the Butterflies

A few days ago I asked which sounds more fun, attending a butterfly festival and playing Go Fish in the park. Wally and I were here after school one afternoon and I was just planning to take him to the local playground. Between various appointments, plans with friends and going away on the weekends we haven't really taken part in the local scene this summer (even though that's something I keep championing in my blog -- just hang around, run through sprinklers, see who else is outside -- more on that hypocrisy later).

So, just as we were gathering sidewalk chalk and a bucket, I got an email (Why, that last frantic email check? No reason) about a butterfly festival happening on the High Line. It would include making butterfly wings, wearing them in a little parade, then releasing hundreds of real live butterflies into the wild. Obviously we have to do that. We live right near the High Line, and we happen to be free, and Wally's not taking a nap so...

For about ten minutes I changed direction and was trying to figure out would he walk down or should I take the stroller (close to a mile work each direction, hot day, tired child)? But if I take the stroller he'll surely fall asleep either on the way there or back and that throws off the night. So should he just walk? But he'll be cranky and the High Line's so packed with people, it's not that much fun for him walking on it at this time. But once we get down the butterfly festival...once we get down there, What?

What, really, would be so great about it? Yes an art project is fun -- and this is a great organization that runs these things, very into "loose parts" and kids' creativity and nature and revitalizing urban spaces. But really -- he's done art projects, today even, many of them. He just got out of five hours of "school". And a parade sounds adorable, but is it really all that much fun for the individual kids? Chances are he won't know anyone, so I'll be prodding him to go join in and he'll maybe not want to or want to do something else or the wings will be itchy... who knows? Yes it could be all beauty and light, ethereal and magical watching these butterfly children spreading their wings on this elevated futuristic city-park but that's almost never the way these things go. There is glue that won't come out, glitter that gets spilled, paper that gets ripped, cranky kids, hovering parents doing the project for the cranky kids, pushy kids, pushover kids whose paintbrushes keep getting stolen. 

And then -- what about the pièce de résistance? The real live butterflies? Yes that would probably be really neat, if you could see it, if you weren't being trampled by snowplough parents pushing their way to the front? But we saw the butterfly exhibit at the Natural History Museum, and it was cool, and we were surrounded by butterflies, and watched some in the chrysalis (didn't we used to always call this the cocoon?) trying to hatch, and then Wally flitted over to the door and we were on our way to the whale room. I've seen him happier, thrilled even, at the sight of a single butterfly than in a room full of them. Kind of the same dynamic as presents. One is a treasure. A room full of presents dissolves into a debauched scene of kids ripping things open and tossing them aside. 

Still, that's not to say the butterfly exhibit or festival isn't a neat thing, and that it might not be a great thing to do on an otherwise empty day, a fun little outing, rather than one more big push in an already busy (for a four-year-old) day. 

But on that particular day, I realized I was grasping after one more cool "experience". Was it that it sounded more fun for me? Is that one of the big draws of these sorts of activities. As many moms have told me, they find it easier to schlep kids around to activities rather than be at home with them.

Mindy Berry Walker wrote in A 'Happy' Mom's Confession: I'm not so nice at home: "I know that my kids would rather be home making dolphins from Play-Doh with me than visiting the seals at the aquarium. They don't need to get out, but I do, in order to see the beauty of life at home. Otherwise, I lose control, and the hurt feelings, the extra snacks, and the spilled juice overwhelm me."

So maybe that is one of the reasons we moms go racing around to these things -- down to Battery Park City for the Brazilian music, to the library story hour, to the the Natural History Museum, the Family Jam, the art class at the Rubin. Ms. Walker also highlights the sense of being able to focus on one's children better outside the home. "Outside, in the big world with my girls, there is a sense of adventure that I thrive on. Unlike at home where I feel the simultaneous tug to engage my children and break down the mess on the dining room table..." That seems like as good a reason as any to go outside the house itself, but still doesn't justify going further than the nearest playground. 

Choosing the local playground over the butterfly festival (or sunset drum circle, or whatever) is sometimes more difficult in the same way that quiet, un-rushed days are harder than packed ones. It requires drawing on inner resources rather than outer, quiet focus rather than crowd control, creativity--an answer, if the playground is empty or the kids who are there don't let you play with them--to the question "What should we do?" rather than an easy command: "Pass me the glitter!" hollered over the heads over other children. Patience rather than pushiness, mundanity rather than worldliness, slow, unremarkable boredom, maybe, rather than a dramatic meltdown, a hurried departure, a comforting refrain on the way back of, "Well, I tried." 

You did maybe try, but you did it, maybe (you, that is me, Rachel, for years past) without thinking about why you were trying, what exactly you were trying for. An escape from the boredom of playgrounds, the sense of isolation there, the impossibility of containing Wally inside one, (that is no longer the case), the refusal to miss out on anything. FOMO, the word my cousin Leah coined, fear-of-missing-out. And also because it is, like the "Happy" mom confessed, easier to focus and not feel overwhelmed when going on an adventure. Yet all this trying, all this chasing butterflies and stalking sunset family jam circles, all of it combined adds up to depriving us of that thing we claim to want more than anything, that ever-elusive jewel always slipping through our hands, that supernatural, hallucinogenic, fantastical dream from childhood. 

So we went to the local playground. And we didn't find anyone we knew. Wally asked two different groups of kids if he could play and both said no or gave blank looks, almost equally hurtful. He skipped off. Ran through the sprinkler. Climbed on the ropes. And came back to me. We played Go Fish. The sun was in my eyes  so we moved from the bench to the weird rubber ground. We played three or four rounds. Wally found a bus someone had left behind and took it for a tour. He kept looking around for someone he knew. The few hours we were there stretched out. Nothing exciting happened. On the walk home Wally felt sad that none of his friends had come out to play. There wasn't really much I could say. It wasn't an "amazing" afternoon, but it was time together, it was time, and you can't get better than that. And as Kim John Payne writes in Simplicity Parenting (yes I love this book), those everyday moments are what kids remember from childhood, not the "blowout trips to Disneyland". 

Think back to your own, isn't that true? Playing in the backyard, coming down to a cozy breakfast in winter, reading books together before bed? Aren't those the phantom images that surface when those days return to you? The days before you left the chrysalis so to speak? Those are the ones that return to me. Playing with that cross-stitch game under the table on the back porch. Drinking orange juice and eating donuts by the pool on a quiet summer morning. Listening to my dad's best friend Alan play When the Ship Comes In on guitar. Reading a book with my cat curled up next to me. Those moments when I had time. 

Assuming you are among the lucky few who has a choice about how your child spends his or her time, provided your children are not among the 215 million worldwide who have to work, and that you are able to find a work/life arrangement that allows for more than a rushed dinner, quick bath, and breakneck bedtime routine, then it would seem perverse to willingly deprive kids of that one essential promise of a summer in childhood. 

*Title, novel Julia Alvarez 


  1. We similarly coined a term for our children- FOMS (fear of missing something) - but ours applies at bedtime and naptime when they will do anything but sleep. (Seriously- who else has a 13 month old who has cut his only daytime nap down to 30 minutes?)
    I love being reassured by your writing- as I am the only mom (amongst my friends) who doesn't have her kids involved in every activity there is.
    I loved my childhood, and most of it was spent playing at home,in our backyard, or down the street with all of our friends in the neighborhood. the thought of being carted around by my mom sounds so tiring!

  2. Holly - what an awesome comment to get! I too feel like the only one whose kids aren't in cooking, soccer, gymnastics and in their "free time" attending every "enriching" event the city has to offer.
    I love that image -- bc it captures it so perfectly "being carted around by your mom". Yes -- so tiring! and not those great simple memories of playing in the backyard or down the street.

    It's so hard not to feel like you're missing out, to bat away that FOMS, and realize that what you'll be missing out on if you act on that FOMS all the time is time to enjoy your child. And what your children will miss out on is...childhood. It's a big price to pay just to learn Mandarin at 3 or make some cool murals with other kids. Each one (activity or event) taken on its own might be reasonable, but in the aggregate, I really do think it's destructive.

    I'm so glad I can reassure you! It's reassuring to me to know you operate in a similar way. (30 minute nap total for 13 months old - that is NOT reasonable, and it's not a FOMS when you have a nonsleeper, something is definitely lacking -- time to yourself-- very essential (Our parents had so much of it b/c we were outside with other kids and they never gave a thought to where we were - that's yet another issue to tackle...but they're all definitely related -- convince people that abductions are more common now (they're not), and they'll happily enroll their kids in activities b/c ...they *can't* just play outside)

  3. Last school holidays were spent playing with the neighbours kids, visiting and playmates with school friends from previous school, hosting sleepover and weekend visits from friends, baking, scootering, riding bike, practising netball skills, watching family movies, trampling and visiting and playing with cousins.
    The focus was on enjoying relationships and time with our friends.

    Not a snowploughing mum in sight.

  4. So wonderful to hear littlegreenvillage!!


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