When Your Three-Year-Old Turns Twelve

silly beach

Ah, the beach. Taking in a tan, body surfing, reading, napping… That was my vision. Then we had kids. The beach with little ones requires constant vigilance, not to mention digging, pail filling, pail dumping, more pail filling, sobbing, snacking, building, burying, losing, searching, and more snacking. Admonitions that you may not throw sand in your sister’s face, even if she did steal your favorite bucket.

I remember one such day, when the children were dreadfully busy, and my husband and I were dreadfully busy, and I wanted nothing more than to be the woman in the beach chair just a few feet away. She sat there unnoticed by the two teens lying next to her. All she had to do was turn the pages of her book and sip her drink and I was… jealous. Because it looked like perfection.

She noticed me too and smiled. And an hour later, as we packed up 2 cartfuls full of what politely might be called “stuff,” I said goodbye, and I must have looked wistful. Or perhaps she did. For something prompted each of us, at almost the same time, to say “I envy you.” And we both laughed and I said how glorious it must be to read an actual novel ON THE BEACH without worrying that your kids would drown or disappear or kick sand in someone’s face.

She told me how much she missed it, the digging and the playing and the being needed, how her teens ignored her. How fast it went. And to love as much of it as you could, in those moments when you could catch your breath and see it. Because of course you can’t always. That’s called real life.

I hope we both left with some renewed sense of gratitude. I imagine I still felt tired. Guess what? The five year-old is a teenager and the three-year-old is turning twelve. In one year I’ll be the mom with a household of teenagers. My beach neighbor was right. Some of the days stretched long, but the years went crazy fast.

I uncovered a piece I wrote for the Bethesda Literary Festival essay contest many years ago. It’s about a time when my son was three. I’m probably due an essay about him being twelve; about his baseball obsession and the fact that he still only eats brown food and thinks sleep is overrated. But for now, I’m stuck on three. Because the tide has turned and now I’m the other parent on the beach looking longingly at the toddlers, and how’d that happen?

char and slide
See? He was just three! I swear!

Here’s that essay. For those with three year-olds and those wondering where the time went.

Never Too Old To Fly

My turning point came on a swing–a simple, sturdy black swing. Who knew such an ordinary thing would send me flying?

There were four in total, hanging from thick metal chains at the neighborhood park. I wasn’t expecting to swing that blustery morning. I anticipated my usual seat on a park bench, cell phone in hand. Perhaps there’d be a chat with another parent.

But it was just the two of us that day, and my three-year-old turned to me hopefully. “Mommy, will you play with me?”

So I did, though without particular enthusiasm. First him on the swing: “Push me, push me, high in the sky!” Then, “Your turn!”

I humored him. I took the swing next to his, pushing off and pumping hard to match his form. We stretched our bodies long, reaching for the clouds. And here’s the thing: on a good swing, in between pumps, you can close your eyes and for a moment, suspended mid-air, it does feel like flying. I’d forgotten that, you see.

But when you remember it, you can stop being a grown-up. We became birds, then airplanes, then tooth fairies! 

To the slide next, hurtling ourselves down forwards, then backwards–quickly, quickly. We were firemen, practicing leaving the station. Then the fire itself appeared, raging behind the picnic table. We doused it with wood chips, saving deer, birds and even six mosquitoes, according to my enthusiastic partner.

Our morning knew no bounds; we went to the great North and watched fish swim upstream. We were deferential to the bear scooping trout up for lunch, knowing he’d likely just woken from a long winter’s nap. He rewarded us with a a wave before lumbering off towards Safeway.

As we prepared to go, we saw her–look quick–a flash of silver behind the still bare dogwood tree. Our first dolphin sighting! Such a treat begets a treat; we decided on milk and cookies. We took one last look around our park. It seems we’d missed nothing. My son wrapped me in a hug, as delighted in me as I was in him. Oh happy morning! For in surrendering to my child’s imagination, I had rediscovered my own.

How’d I finish it? I spoke of taking a chance at being a writer, noting “the ending remains to be written. But for now, I’m still flying.”

It’s true not just of writers, but of kids. Adults. Of all our stories. The important thing is that we keep growing. And leaving time for joy–whether it’s in a park or on a ball field or with a novel on a beach–that’s just huge.

Though maybe the kids could slow down just a bit. Sniff.

Still eating brown food.
Some things haven’t changed. Brown food for life.



2 thoughts on “When Your Three-Year-Old Turns Twelve

  1. Aviva Goldfarb says:

    There you go, making me cry again. I’ve gotten used to the rhythm of teens not needing me in the same intense way they did when they were little, and I so enjoy this life, but what I wouldn’t give for one day where I could pick them both up and give them as many kisses as I want to, and snuggle on the couch, or on their floor to read a book to them. Thanks for the reminder to savor what we have and get lost in the moment.

  2. Kristin O'Keefe says:

    Thanks Aviva. It’s true that time with teens can be quite lovely as well (I got to read a novel on the beach last weekend!). Not to mention some really interesting discussions. But those little ones…whew. Maybe as teens they’ll humor us and let us read aloud every once in a while. I loved that too.


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