Family

Some temporary distance brought me and my daughter closer – and taught me that love is quietly joyful | Sisonke Msimang

My daughter is 14, and on most days I feel like she barely grunts in my direction. She thinks everything I do is cringey and delights in telling me how awful my outfits are. So, when I went away for five weeks for a writing residency in Europe, I assumed I’d get a few sporadic text messages from her, but that I’d basically catch up on her life when I got back.

Instead, she called me every single day.

The first few times she called, I assumed she was calling because she needed something. When the calls persisted, I thought she was buttering me up so that I’d send her money. After a week, I realised she was just calling to talk.

I realised she was replicating our daily routine by touching base with me in the same way as we normally do when we are physically together. She was phoning in the afternoons after school, typically the time she’d be walking into the house.

Initially, this surprised me because our after-school routine is pretty run-of-the-mill: She comes in and I yell at her to shut the door so the flies don’t get in. She and her younger brother grab a snack and I ask how their days have been. Sometimes they’ll mumble something, often it’s just a shrug. Then we’re doing homework or I’m driving them to netball or basketball or one of a zillion other activities.

I am not at my best in those hours. Like many women, I dropped out of full-time work when my children were much younger. Childcare was expensive and on balance it felt easier for one of us to work less. I earned less, so the decision was straightforward.

Still, it has not been easy to shoehorn my career and my ambitions into school hours, and I have sometimes struggled with the juggling act. I am often grumpy because there aren’t enough hours in the day and three o’clock often feels like it comes too fast.

So I would not say our after-school sessions are the highlight of my day: it often feels like the second shift, a set of obligations I have to meet.

Yet in insisting that we touch base, my daughter was showing me that in those moments after school – when she is snacking and changing into her netball gear (too slowly for my liking) or struggling with a maths problem – we are connecting. We may be completing chores, but for her, the time spent together is part of the daily rhythm of her life: a way of making sense of the world.

With the wisdom that often comes so naturally to children, she was showing me that cumulatively all those conversations we’ve had over the years have become greater than the sum of their parts. For her, the family routine has become a kind of ritual, one that is both ordinary and sacred.

Australia weekend

I hadn’t seen this at all. I was too bound up in the administrative duties of motherhood to fully appreciate the meaning of our shared time. By the last week, I had fully embraced it. Here I was talking to this funny and engaging young woman, without having to worry about how long she may have been glued to a device or pester her about doing her chores. I could just enjoy her – and I did.

With no daily responsibilities, I was able to see her for the thoughtful young woman she is becoming. With her face framed on my phone screen, each time she called, our greetings were full of smiles.

It took me a while to realise it, but those smiles weren’t just a function of the distance. Our joy at taking one another in, at looking at one another with love, is part of the script, part of how we show one another care.

When my kids walk through the door each day I am delighted to see them. Even when I am tired or frazzled, there is something about seeing them burst into the house still half-belonging to the world before they settle down and become their home-selves that always makes me smile.

Looking at myself looking at her, I realised that it wasn’t just the distance that was making us smile. The way we look at each other is as much part of our bond as the chats themselves. We love each other by looking at each other with love.

So there it was. Simply by calling me consistently while I was away, my child taught me to recognise the sacred in the everyday and she showed me that love is quietly joyful.

As many parents know, kids teach us as much as we teach them. The wisdom of children lies in their capacity to intuit what matters; it lies, too, in their capacity to share what they know to be true without using complicated words. My wise child recognised that the thousands of conversations we’ve had over the years are the bedrock upon which our mutual trust and companionship are built. In doing that, she changed the way I look at the everyday.

In the end, she also confirmed what I have suspected for some time now: my outfits make her cringe, but my love does not.

Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist, a public speaker and storyteller. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)

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