In the days when venturing out happened with a bitty one snuggled into a front carrier and two more just as bitty in my double stroller, older moms would pass me and glance with longing. “Ahhh, I miss those days. Enjoy them while you can! They grow up before you know it!” they would sigh a warning as their eyes misted over.
As if I hadn’t been hearing that since first becoming a mother.
I knew what the older moms were saying was true. In fact, children do grow up. Of course they do, but it didn’t feel like that was something that was going to happen in my life any time soon. When you’re drowning in the endless days of motherhood, how do you even digest advice like that?
From the moment my oldest child was born, I was his favorite being. Only I would do. When he was 5 days old, I walked into his room and just at the sound of my voice, his eyes began searching out, followed by the cry for me—the wail, actually. He had such an enveloping need for me that my husband would have to lift him up and hold him overhead to see me when I disappeared behind the shower curtain, trying for a shower for the first time in days.
I couldn’t take it anymore and my husband’s shoulders started breaking down, so one day at the discount home goods store when I saw a see-through shower curtain, I knew I had the answer to our sanity. Now everyone could see me in my full naked glory, just like they all screamed for. My child could not live without me remaining in his sight; I was that essential to his survival.
My son and I lived a coexistence, one rightly filled with highs and lows. It was hard to tell where I left off and he began. At 3 years old, when I would ask him what he wanted for lunch, he’d answer, “What Mama have!” I was submerged in motherhood during those days—loving him so, and at the same time, falling apart with the fear that things would always be this consuming.
I didn’t know about the seasons of parenting. Just as with his finger sucking, that I thought would last forever. And his climbing on chairs and falling off onto the kitchen hardwood floor, his determined screams of refusal when it was time to take a nap and therefore be separated from me—I thought each one a static condition, and eternal.
But life is fluid and dynamic, and though we see children growing up when they belong to other people, it is impossible for us to imagine that tomorrow comes for us. Will our own child not always be an infant, a toddler, a child in grade school? Nope.
So when that same baby of mine, who once imagined that the oxygen he needed to breathe could only come from me, left for college and found his own air, I couldn’t find mine. It turned out he was right, because now I’m the one searching for how to breathe without him here.
The memories I have of holding his small body in my arms are some of the sweetest in my life, but I never thought the moments would end this quickly. When did he grow up? Because I had my eye on him the whole time, and I watched for changes.
The days slipped by because children don’t grow up little by little; they do it overnight. You go from leaning down to snap their size 2T onesies to standing in front of them, your arms reaching up as you help them with their tie on graduation day. Like that.
Childhood is temporary, even on the days it feels permanent.
Older moms on the bike path who would pass me with reminders of the whooshing of the days, I would hear them. I would. But how could I tell them: “Thanks for the reminder. I know you mean well, but it doesn’t feel like the half-second that you remember it as, because I am knee deep in the seasons of babyhood.
You have to be at the far end of anything before you can look back. That’s the only way it works. How can you see your starting point if you’re not at the finish line? In those days of early parenting, when women feel it’s their duty to tell you, “Enjoy every bit of it!” I didn’t want to reflect on that.
Because I just wanted one freakin’ second to myself. Because those days of early parenting are trial by error, baptized by the flaming hot fire, flying by the seat of your pants.
No one can tell you what those days are like because you have no point of reference. Loving those minutes so much that every thought is about your children, their well being, what they need, and whether or not they have it all. The other half of your body and soul are falling apart while you watch. How do you explain to a parent that both ends of the spectrum are part of life with children? That you can’t untangle either one, and would they believe you if you tried?
That’s why “Enjoy them when they’re little!” doesn’t work. I want to say it myself, to so many new moms, but I catch myself and swallow the words because I know. Just as when it was said to me, the woman with three children hanging from her neck like necklaces, it’s impossible to project that far out with little chubby fingers waving in front of your face. When your days are made of four-hour sleep the night before and your lunch is leftover finger food from a toddler’s plates while you stand at the sink rinsing something out for the 29th time that day, who’s going to believe “Enjoy it while you can!”
Had you told me that one day this 20-pound baby of mine sitting on my husband’s shoulders, red-faced from screaming on the other side of the shower curtain for his mama while I for the love of God took just a three-minute shower for the first time in five days for God’s sake, would today be half an inch shy of 6 feet tall and grabbing for the car keys, I’d tell you that happens to someone else’s child—but not mine. Mine will always need me there in front of his vision, won’t he?
If I could say anything to new parents, it would be this: Smile when you can, cry when you have to, and know that where you are now, is part of the beautiful seasons of your life.
You don’t need me to tell you to enjoy them while you can.
I have no doubt that you already are and know how—in your own way.
Just like I did.