We’ve all seen or heard it happen. A mother voices a complaint about something she is not enjoying about the mothering experience and someone else returns with a comment that disguises itself as “words of wisdom,” but is perhaps actually a thinly veiled criticism of the other mother: “well, you know, they grow so fast and you’ll miss them when they’re older!” I am curious if anyone actually finds this a helpful remark or thinks it is an original sentiment. While probably originally born from good intent, “you’ll miss this” based comments have become trite and cliche. While perhaps voiced in a good-intentioned way and theoretically used to bring perspective, to bring a proper sense of gratitude, and as an honest reminder to count your blessings (which are many and true), I think the shadow side and darker purpose of this “bringing perspective” is to silence, to muffle, to dismiss, to deny, and to shame. How often do we use this phrase against ourselves in exactly this manner? Perhaps we are nursing the baby and longing for it to fall into a deep enough sleep so that we can sneak away and “get things done.” And then, pop! there it is, “You shouldn’t be trying to get up, you’ll miss this when they’re older.”
Well, guess what, there are plenty of things I’m confident I won’t miss when they’re older. I know that I will miss breastfeeding. It is one of the deepest and richest joys of my life. The breastfeeding relationship is an intimate, interdependent, and profound connection that is irreplaceable. However, I also know in my heart that I will never miss having a toddler twiddle, pinch, stretch, and pick at the other nipple while nursing (and, frankly, I seriously doubt that any woman on earth has spent her twilight years wishing someone was stretching her nipple out to superhuman lengths). I’ll miss the sounds of little boys as they spin elaborate imaginary scenarios out in their play. I will not miss having to shout to be heard over this play while trying to carry on a reasonable, adult conversation with my husband. I’ll miss having warm little bodies snuggling with me. I won’t miss having someone sit on my back and chew on my hair while I try to type an article (yes, this has happened more than once!). I could go on, but you get the drift. There are pieces of parenting that are profoundly disagreeable and it is okay to name them, rather than shame yourself or others in the name of imaginary future regret. Additionally, the subtext that women with grown children spend their days pining for earlier years rankles with me. Personally, I really hope my own mother doesn’t waste a lot of her time wishing I was still a baby. I like to think she enjoys my company now!
Children grow and change. It is what they do. And, we want them to, really, and we want to continue to grow and develop ourselves as well, not to remain stagnated in memories of an earlier day or paralyzed by concerns about future regrets. A good friend once said something that has had a profound impact on me: “I parent the child in front of me.” Not the future adult, or, the memory of the baby or the toddler.
Here are some scenarios carrying a genuinely meaningful message: My older son is then three. He takes off his shirt at an event and a playgroup friend with adult children stops and her breath catches a little. She says, “Oh, Molly, make sure you take a picture of that little boy belly.” That night, I make sure to take one. Watching my sons playing in a wading pool one year, my mom says, “just look at the back of his neck and his powerful [tiny, narrow] shoulders.” I take another picture, not just with my camera, but with my heart. I visit my friend with a newborn baby. Even though I have my own treasure of a 5 month old with me, I ask my friend if I can touch the back of her newborn’s head. When I touch him, tears fill my eyes. All of these are genuine expressions of the original heart of the “you’ll miss this” message—pay attention and remember to look. We don’t need a trite platitude that summarily dismisses the potent intensity of mothering small children day to day, we need to see other mothers in the act of remembering. Those moments with our babies and our children that bring a sweet, deep ache to our hearts in the moment, those are our clues that we are savoring and cherishing their lives as they unfold. The tears that may spring unbidden to our eyes in the future when another mother’s child makes us remember this potency of early childhood, the very fact that we look back with such a pang, means that we did a very, very good job with the savoring—if we hadn’t savored, we wouldn’t know how to feel so deeply later.
“It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it myself.”