I was at the doctor when a nurse with five children and a dozen or so grandchildren told me that it goes by too fast. “I’m sure you hear that all the time, but it’s true,” she said.
I do hear that all the time. And it is true. It seems like yesterday I was standing over the crib as a new father. I was 24, and it was Tristan’s first night home with us. He looked so small, swaddled and sleeping, and all I could think about was how my life was going to change in ways I couldn’t define. I felt nervous about being a father, and I didn’t know just what to do about it. But I knew it was too late to turn back. And there was something really scary about that. It almost felt like I didn’t have my hands on the wheel anymore. It was like something or someone was now taking me in a new direction, to a place that I’d heard about, but didn’t really know what it looked like. I was on the road to fatherhood.
My life changed.
It is still changing.
From day one, parenting is all about change. With Tristan, it started with sleepless nights. That was the first really big challenge for me as a father. Now he’s 9, and the challenge is homework and hygiene. In between those stages were a million other challenges.
That’s the thing with parenting. It feels like I’m always heading to some new stage in development that I assume will be better than stage I’m currently struggling with. For example, right now my 2-year-old, Aspen, fights going to sleep, she gets up in the night, and then around 5 a.m., she’s up for the day. I think a lot about her not sleeping when I’m at work, red-eyed and exhausted. And I know that my wife thinks about it too when she is trying to study for her classes and it’s everything she can do to keep her eyes open. Both of us talk about how wonderful it will be when Aspen will begin to sleep through the night like our older two children do.
But we don’t talk much about how, in comparison to our other kids, Aspen is really snuggly. She says the funniest, cutest things. She is so excited to see me when I get home from work. And when I leave for the day, she often sticks her head out the pet door and tells me goodbye. It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
My oldest son, on the other hand, is much more independent, and every time I try to give him a hug in the school parking lot, he looks at me like I’m a wild bear. When I come home from work, he asks for the iPad. No hello. No hug. Just, “Can I have the iPad?” Sometimes he doesn’t even acknowledge my presence. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad kid. He isn’t. He’s just a normal 9-year-old boy.
But honestly, I miss when he was snuggly like Aspen. I miss when I could give him a kiss and it would fix anything. He is so much more complicated now. Like always, I can’t wait for him to move onto some other stage, when he will comb his hair without a fight, or figure out the importance of homework, or perhaps appreciate some of the things I do for him.
But what am I missing right now by longing for the next stage?
What I’m trying to say here is that I always look forward to my children’s future development with wishful hope, assuming that it will fix the problem that I have now. But the fact is, with each stage comes new challenges, and regret for what was left behind. And I don’t understand why I don’t just sit back and savor the good things: the snuggles and the cuteness, the time when they still take my advice, and they are interested in spending time with me rather than their friends. The positive parts of a ridiculous over-the-top laugh from my 2-year-old, rather than bitching about her not sleeping, and longing for the next stage in life as if it will not come with new challenges that I haven’t anticipated.
When Tristan wouldn’t sleep as a baby, I was in college and working close to full-time waiting tables. I can still remember falling asleep on the campus bus and waking up in strange places. I remember being so exhausted that I almost fell asleep leaning against a wall in the restaurant I worked at. But now, when I look back on those moments, I realize how busy I was with work and school, and although I was really miserable during the day because of not getting enough sleep, I also didn’t have much time with my new son. I often felt like all I did was go to school and work and bring in a check. Those late nights comforting my son really were the only opportunities I had to feel like a father, to look at his soft sweet little face, and feel like I was really there for him. There was a satisfaction that I can only see now, in hindsight.
And when I think about that, I realize what that nurse really meant when she said, “It goes by too fast.” There is a sense of warmth and understanding to parental hindsight, and there is a swiftness and longing for something new in a child’s development when you are stuck in the moment. Parenting is stressful and chaotic, and then, once it’s calm, you feel like you lost something. You miss how snuggly your baby was or how hilarious your toddler could be. In those moments, I should’ve slowed down and let it sink in, enjoyed the moment rather than longing for the next stage because I assumed it would be easier.
So tonight, when I’m up with Aspen like I am every night, I’m not going to fight it. I’m not going to bitch. Or at least I’m going to try not to. I’m going to look at her blond hair that is starting to turn brown, and think about how sweet and innocent she is. I’m going to look at her tender little feet, savor how soft she feels snuggling into my chest, and enjoy where she is now in her development rather than longing for her to move on, and up, and out.
Ultimately, children aren’t children forever. And it does, in fact, move really fast.