“They grow up way too fast.” It’s so cliché, you’re probably rolling your eyes as you read it. We all know it, and yet when we’re in it, in the day-to-day of parenting, we forget. So even if we have a knee-jerk “yeah, yeah, I know” reaction to the cliché, how do we actually remember this thing we all know? As our children grow up at dizzying speed, faster with each passing year, is there any way to counterbalance the feeling that it’s getting away from us, without holding on to them—or the past—too tightly?
Most mothers of small children have had some version of the following experience: you’re in a public place and your toddler is melting down while the baby is screaming (or substitute some other flavor of wildness and chaos that comes with parenting small children). An older mother, or a mother of children older than yours, gives you that knowing smile and says, “They grow so fast—hang in there, savor every moment!”
Some people (like this mom) hate this. They find it patronizing and invalidating and I get that, which why I resist the urge to say it myself—especially to people who are clearly struggling—now that my kids are getting older. It never bothered me, though, and in fact, I always appreciated the reminder. Because it’s so easy to forget, isn’t it, when things are hard? Or even when things are fine and routine but we’re on autopilot, caught up in the busy-ness and tasky-ness of life.
So, whether or not we want to hear it from others, how do we remind ourselves how soon these days, months, years, will be gone?
How do we slow it down and preserve memories? Does it matter whether we’re meticulous scrapbookers or slackers who rarely manage to upload our photos? Is it more about documentation, or moment-to-moment presence? What tricks can we use to remind ourselves to at least be here for as much of it as we can—not only because our kids need as much of our full presence as we can give, but also because even the Pinterest queens can’t possibly capture and preserve it all? If we pay more attention now, will we not only be better parents, but also remember more of their childhoods later?
Maybe it’s the convergence of midlife with my firstborn’s approaching the cusp of his teen years that’s made me acutely, and sometimes painfully, aware of the time passing. Nearly thirteen years ago, this child went everywhere with me in the baby carriers I collected like some women collect bags or shoes, or I was strapping him into the car seat. And then I blinked. Now he’s an inch taller than me, riding shotgun and vying for control of the radio while talking to me in this new deep voice that has me doing double-takes every day.
My little one just turned nine, and I’m hanging on to the last delicious hints of little boy-ness as he moves undeniably into the Big Kid category.
So we’re past the middle. My firstborn will be old enough to move out in way fewer years than he’s been with us (OMG), and my younger one is halfway there.
Other than my loudest monster mama moments, some of my biggest parenting regrets are failures of documentation. I have a gazillion still photos but not enough video because I always forget to empty out my phone, and too often there’s not enough space. And all those still photos? They live in the computer, except for a couple of albums and one grouping of framed ones in the front hallway. My plan was to pick favorites from each year since we had kids until I got caught up, and then update with new ones from each year going forward, eventually having a whole wall of family photos. I started in the middle, with 2013, and that’s as far as I got.
As for photo books, I have one each from when the boys were newborns and one from a family vacation to Arizona. Photo books are hardly urgent, so it’s been easy to bump it to the bottom of the list—increasingly so as each year passes and it becomes a bigger undertaking. (This is THE year I finish both of those projects, though, I swear!)
The other project on my forever to-do list? Gathering the scraps of paper tucked here and there, going through my Facebook feed, and making a book of all the hilarious and poignant things my kids have said that I managed to get on paper or in a status update.
Part of it is, I want my kids to grow up having family photos to look at—in physical, tangible form (gotta hurry up!), and I want them to be able to look back and read their awesome kid quotes when they’re older. But it’s for me, too, so I can solidify the memories of their childhoods, at least as much as possible given my questionable organization habits and tendency toward procrastination.
I wish I were like my friend, who has a shelf full of Shutterfly books, created chronologically in a timely fashion, and walls full of beautifully framed prints (from more than one year!). Or my other friend, who started a giant blank book when her oldest started talking and kept it open on the sideboard in her dining room, readily available so she could write down those kid quotes and other funny moments before she forgot—in order and in their permanent place. Or the one who wrote letters to her children monthly when they were very little, less frequently but still regularly as they got older. The letters were full of the exquisite, minute details of what they were doing and saying during each snapshot in time.
I try to refrain from too much advice-giving with new parents (because, how annoying), but I do tell friends who are having babies now, whether it’s photo albums or written memories or both—do yourself a favor and keep up with this stuff in real-time. You don’t want to have a decade-plus of stuff to catch up on (or the regret if you never get to it at all). Try to do it monthly when you do your bills or something, I tell them.
And. Even if I had managed to be like my more organized friends—even all three of them in one!—it’s still an illusion to think I could come close to capturing it all. If I wanted to try and hold on to who they are now, I couldn’t. I could be as present and mindful as I’m capable of being, take a hundred pictures and even a video, and still, the memory of who they are in this moment will take on an ephemeral, ghost-like quality when I try in a few years to conjure them up at their now-ages.
This becomes clear whenever I come across something one of them said that I managed to write down, and it jolts me back to that time, and the memory is vivid, and it speaks to who they were in that moment. And yet, I’m struck—even a little freaked out—by how I would never have remembered it if I hadn’t just seen it written.
It becomes clear when I watch a video from more than a couple years ago and I’m struck by the higher, littler kid voice that is oddly unfamiliar.
So to some degree, their childhoods do simply slip away. Much will be lost, at least in terms of conscious memory, and nothing can be done about it. As I come to accept this, the kid quote book and photo projects keep their spots on my to-do list, but they don’t feel quite so heavy.
When my older son was four, his favorite show was a NOVA episode about the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope by an astronaut named Mike Massamino. He must have watched it a hundred times on Netflix, usually while wearing his little white NASA jumpsuit. He wanted to be Mike Massamino. This was a big enough thing and it went on for long enough that I probably never would have forgotten it entirely. But you still can sort of forget about even the bigger phases when it gets farther back in time and they become older kids with different interests and habits. The Hubble Space Telescope phase came up somehow when my husband and I were talking and I realized I hadn’t thought about it in a few years. I did forget about it, temporarily anyway.
Not long after that, I found this little plastic toy when I was going through the kids’ stuff during a decluttering spree. It’s a figurine of the Hubble Space Telescope we picked up from one of those plastic toy bins at the children’s museum gift shop years ago. It sits on my altar now, where I sit (almost) every morning and do some combination of journaling, prayers, meditation.
Now, even if I don’t finish the photo sorting until they are grown and out of the house, I have my daily visual reminder that these days are fleeting. A daily reminder that what I want is to stay awake and out of autopilot—not just to be a better parent for my kids, but for me, too. So I’m more likely to notice and feel fully. And remember.
© Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2019