There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

–as told by David Foster Wallace, 2005 commencement address

One of most thrilling things about parenthood (and one of the most clichéd as well) is the speed with which a child seems to make new discoveries, mark new milestones, and motor through myriad developmental landscapes. I can’t believe he’s already ______, we will say. Just yesterday, we will marvel, he wasn’t doing that. And we will be right.

At the same time, many parents find the daily routine of following a young child though this development to be maddening. It can feel like a never-ending cycle of monotony marked by repetition and obsession. A laser-beam focus on the small, seemingly inconsequential daily tasks and surroundings that WE long ago mastered or blocked out of our awareness, but THEY find invigorating. It is why we sometimes look at the clock and tune out as we spend hours opening and shutting doors and cabinets, hours repeating words as our child points out the same three objects over and over, hours reinforcing “no” to some curiosities while praising others, without always fully thinking about why we are doing this. Many of us want to be “there” for our children, to be present, but as the same time we want to be elsewhere. With our friends or spouses. With our phones. Or with our children…at a different stage. If only they could hold their head up, we say. That would give us freedom. If only they could walk or talk. If only they could get over this stage of crying or fussing over _______. As it turns out, we are keenly aware of the bottom and the top of the mountain, not so much of the path leading to the top.

Why is this? David Foster Wallace had some great insights in his famous “This is Water” commencement address. He starts by reminding students of their own ego and the danger of believing you know it all.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

By age 30, it’s pretty easy to get in the mindset of “been there, done that” even if there are countless variations on a theme, and any number of ways to view this situation as different than or unique from that one. It’s just easier to lump one thing in with another, to stick to one way of looking at something, to ignore the nuance.

For example, Declan loves doors. He wants to turn the knobs, lock and unlock them, open and shut them, knock on them. The entire process seems new to him. He wants to do it over and over again. He is learning. To me, it can be tedious. Bending over to hold him up to the door, turning the knob for him (after all, it’s just a knob…not a delicious ice cream cone), opening the door and letting flies into the apartment, only seeing his backside because he’s interacting with the door and not his dear old dad. I’ve gotta admit after a few minutes, my mind starts wandering. After five minutes, I’m desperately suggesting new activities for us to try, to which Declan replies “duh”…which is either “door” or “don’t you dare take me away from this, you unimaginative old man.”

David Foster Wallace gives the example of grocery shopping and how easy it is to revert to auto-pilot during such a pedestrian experience.

Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

And so it is with parenting. Reminding yourself over and over to be present, to pay attention to what MIGHT be happening instead of assuming you know.

I remember a time I was successful at that. I’d been vacuuming our rug and Declan wanted to look at the vacuum. And instead of giving into my unconscious desire to put the vacuum away after a few minutes, I left it out and we played with it for an hour. He observed, ran his fingers and toes over parts of the machine, observed some more, tried at times to put parts of the vacuum in his mouth, obsessed over buttons, pulled and pushed, observed more, laughed and stuck out his tongue in concentration and generally had a great old time discovering what this vacuum was all about. And wouldn’t you know? I learned something, too. I’d never really looked at a vacuum that closely. Even when we bought it. It was interesting to see where the hoses ran, how the dirt and gunk got from point A to point B, how the designers tried to optimize efficiency (wow, I sound old).

Remember the fish in the story at the top of the page? Here is what David Foster Wallace takes away from that story.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”
“This is water.”

That’s what I’m practicing when the routines of the day–the pointing, the yapping, the fussing, the laughing, the obsessions–seem to lose meaning or importance.

This is parenthood.
This is my son, at this moment in time.
This is learning.