I squirm around in my seat. “Girls!” My 10-year-old slowly looks up from her screen. “What?”
“Turn off the screen and look out the window—we’re here!”
She rolls her eyes, turns off the iPad, jabs her older sister in the ribs and shakes her little sister’s arm. “We’re here you guys.”
The 3-year-old protests: “But I not done watching Ariel!”
The 12-year-old sighs, pulls off her Beatz and shoots me an incredulous look, like I’ve just asked her to kill a bunny.
“You can finish watching whatever later,” I say, trying to sound chipper instead of totally annoyed. “Right now we’re going for a walk. Let’s go, coats and boots on. It’s cold out there.”
More grumbling, tears from the little one, but I ignore it. We’ve just arrived at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, ancient sequoias looming majestically all around us. It’s winter and freezing, but there’s no way they are staying in the car when we’re smack dab in the middle of all this beauty. We are going to experience this awesomeness together. All five of us.
With a 12-, 10- and 3-year-old, planning family time that works for everyone is basically mission impossible. I don’t blame the older ones for not wanting to hang out at the kiddie park anymore, and the 3-year-old can’t deal with big girl activities, like hanging out at the mall, ice skating or PG movies. To avoid the whining, my husband and I divide and conquer, taking one or two girls to run errands while the other one shuttles another to a soccer game, friend’s house or birthday party. Come Sunday evening, I’ve barely seen my husband, we’re both exhausted and we definitely haven’t spent much meaningful time together as a family.
I imagine the moment when everyone’s star will align. The 12-year-old will solve her wonky hair issues with a quick ponytail. The 10-year-old will get over the fact that we’re going to the zoo instead of Six Flags. The 3-year-old won’t have a complete meltdown because the dog ate her Z-bar. My husband won’t check work emails and I’ll stop worrying whether or not everyone brought a jacket just in case. We’ll find ourselves in that sweet spot of togetherness where family memories are made—the good kind. I’m not saying this should happen all the time, but a little more often would be nice.
After several maddening minutes of finding hats, zippering up and jamming little fingers into little gloves, we finally climb out of the car. Two minutes later the 3-year-old starts crying because she doesn’t want to walk, so my husband stops to pick her up. Meanwhile, I hurry after the 12-year-old, who’s hopped the fence to explore the Do Not Enter area. The 10-year-old is freaking out because her sister is breaking the rules and runs off to find her, leaving me behind. We are spread out along the icy trail, in and out of the giant sequoias, like thumbtacks on a wall map of the world.
Once again, family time deftly eludes us.
“Isn’t this amazing?” I say loudly, hoping the sound of my voice will magically draw everyone together. No one comes running. I settle myself against the wooden fence guarding the delicate roots of the tallest trees, close my eyes and turn my face up towards the winter sun. I know my kids are each at very distinct ages and stages—the desires and demands of a tween, almost teen and preschooler rarely mix unless ice cream is involved—but this lack of cohesiveness frustrates me. A nagging guilt makes me wonder if there’s something I need to do differently, while the more forgiving side of my heart encourages me to start from where we are.
I open my eyes and traipse off to find my husband and three girls. As I round the nearest stand of trees, I see the two oldest leaning full-bodied against the rough, rust-colored bark of an enormous sequoia. They are knit together in a half hug, faces turned towards each other, giggling, eyes squinting. Each of their outside arms stretches as far as it can go, heroically, comically, trying to wrap around the rest of the trunk. The sun bounces off the patches of snow on the ground, lighting up their glossy hair. They look like angels.
This is not exactly the moment I’d had in mind, but it’s definitely a moment.
Maybe family time doesn’t always have to include all five of us with our mishmash of wants and needs. There is meaning and connection in the small unions, too, in the beautiful, unplanned moments.