When my husband picked the Netflix movie Riverdance: The Animated Adventure for family movie night with our two kids, who are 5 and 7, I didn’t expect much. Its premise was a little strange, taking the traditional Irish dance show you may remember from the ’90s and turning it into an animated kids’ movie complete with mythical creatures. It looked decent enough to keep my kids zombie-eyed for 90-minutes, but nothing to write home about.
I settled into the couch, prepared to scroll through Instagram until the credits rolled. But I was surprised to find myself sucked into a deeper-than-normal narrative for a kids’ movie.
The movie follows the journey of a boy named Keegan in the aftermath of his grandpa’s death. He plods through life, heavy with grief, until one afternoon when his friend Moya invites him to meet her by the river.
Following the typical progression of a kid’s movie, the river meet-up leads to them dancing on a log bridge over a river. But then, gasp, Keegan falls into the rapids below. While he furiously swims, Moya hops into the river and surfs the choppy waves, trailing behind him. After somehow surviving the swim that led him over multiple waterfalls, Keegan finds himself in a magical pool of water, complete with rainbows and friendly frogs. But rather than soaking in the moment, he desperately asks Moya, “But how do we get back?”
“Back?” she laughs. “We just got here!”
And it hit me hard.
Motherhood, for me, was unexpected. While I had been told by multiple doctors that it may be difficult to get pregnant, my husband and I stared at a positive pregnancy test just one week after returning home from our honeymoon. And my journey to motherhood was quite similar to Keegan’s whitewater rapids swim. My pregnancy was full of nausea, vomiting, and fainting. To top things off, at 38 weeks pregnant, I tripped and belly-flopped on the pavement. Instead of continuing on my journey to get mac and cheese for lunch, I went to labor & delivery for four hours of monitoring. I begged the nurses to induce me because c’mon, I was in the hospital for four hours anyway, and I was sick of being pregnant. Couldn’t we just kill two birds with one stone?
The answer was no.
I’ve never swum over a waterfall because, hello, I’m not a movie character. But four weeks later, as I watched a nurse practitioner attempt to intubate my blue baby, it certainly was a plummeting feeling. Yes, your math is correct. They let me go nine days over my due date, the baby got stuck (big shocker), and I’m still pissed about it.
And then, I dropped into the magical pool with talking frogs. Our baby was okay. After they suctioned out her lungs, she could breathe on her own. But to me, the magical pool looked dark and sinister. I had seen how quickly things could go wrong, and this place, the one with a baby with big blue eyes and a cute little cry, was an eternity away from my previous life.
I needed to get back, so I tried recreating elements of my past self: the tiny body, the sharp brain, the ability to walk out the door for dinner at 7 pm without worrying about a bedtime schedule.
I compared my postpartum body to pictures of myself in high school, back when I ran cross country and could eat two dinners a night without gaining an ounce. I cut my calories until I was shaky. I tried wrinkle cream after wrinkle cream, trying to replicate the smooth glowing skin of college youth. I dreamed of the days when I could sleep in without a child creepily staring at me until I woke up at 5 am.
But this kids’ movie, about magical creatures and dancing, gave me a lightbulb moment. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe the point is not to get back to where I was, but instead, to fully occupy where I am now.
In my ferocious efforts to return to the past, I was missing the magic. Beauty now looks different than beauty then. My days are spent tucking notes into lunch boxes, holding dimpled hands, guiding arms into the sleeves of yellow duck raincoats, braiding hair, playing princesses and superheroes. We are in the stage of life where Bandaids can fix almost anything. Our days are polka dotted by the unexpected: teeth falling out, pants that are suddenly capris, and funny quotes collected from our five-year-old.
I’m at the glorious point in life when I can order the guacamole with my Chipotle without feeling guilty about the extra dollar it will cost. I have time to read at night. And I’m starting to develop some grandma-like loves: watching butterflies, going to bed at 6:30pm, and baking cookies for the neighbors.
Sure, my body has changed. I have wrinkles and gray hair, and my body is different. I lose my phone at least twice a day, and, as my five-year-old once said, “It’s easy to trick a mom!”
But this little movie inspired me to stop trying to go back and start enjoying the present. I stopped dieting and decided to accept my body as it is. I may never recover my pre-kid brain, but it’s now full of memories of babies, and dimples, and family road trips. My entire house will never be clean at once. There will always be at least one messy room, or more likely, multiple messy rooms and one clean room. But my house contains marker-drawn pictures taped to the windows and walls and a Barbie brigade.
I wouldn’t trade any of these things to get back; back to where I was before kids, before I fell off a bridge and swam through rapids, and plummeted over waterfalls. Instead, I’ve decided to soak up the present before it becomes the past. Joy does not come from wanting to be where I am not. Joy occurs in the present, as I am. And it is a lovely place to be.
Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.