“Treasure every moment! It goes by so fast.”
Mothers of babies and young children hear this almost daily, everywhere. Untangling sticky fingers from candy in line at the grocery store, shaking wood chips out of sandals at the playground, covering phlegmy coughs in pediatricians’ waiting rooms. It nearly always comes from the parents of grown children, parents who understandably miss dimpled little arms around their necks and sleepy cuddles and tiny shoes. For them it has been years, maybe decades, and they don’t remember.
In my first years of motherhood, “It goes by so fast, doesn’t it?” filled me with dread and guilt and a sort of resentment. A simple question, intended to share joy, felt like an assault, like a tiny dagger hurled point-blank by a stranger. I plastered on a misty smile and gazed at the babies’ curly little heads, nodding in agreement.
But I didn’t treasure every moment. I didn’t treasure most moments. It went by so slowly.
I feel like I can finally write about it, now that it’s in the past. Now that we’ve moved on to different problems, different bitter tears with real pain behind them, different kinds of stubbornness. I have been, until recently and for a very long time, struggling with what is now popularly referred to as my “life choices.” In particular, I’ve been struggling with the one life choice that was supposed to be easy, the only one I ever knew for sure I wanted to make.
Since forever, all I wanted were babies. I wrapped toy trains in blankets, rocked them and fed them bottles. I was a mother’s helper as soon as I could convince anyone to let me, and a babysitter as soon as I wasn’t afraid to be in a house with no adults in it at night. My plan was to get married at 23 and have four babies by the time I was 28. And then I would have everything I ever wanted.
In reality, though, it all seemed to take forever. Someone to have babies with took forever to materialize. When he finally did (thank goodness), a baby took what felt like forever to happen, months and months of frustration from trying to achieve something that should have been natural, easy. Then the baby came, with difficulty and trauma. But he came, and I was happy.
At first it was just as I’d been told it would be. I loved him immediately in a way that assured me I’d never loved anything before, not like this, not really. Then came brief (but indelible) postpartum depression. A depression I didn’t realize was happening until I was sobbing in a bathtub, my mother on the floor next to me promising me that I was sick, and that I would get better.
I did get better, and then came run-of-the-mill anxiety about working or not working, sleep training or not, organic homemade baby food and weekly- sterilized toys or, like, sanity. All this mixed in with healthy doses of wonderment at this beautiful fat-fingered, bouncy-curled person we made, and weepy explosions of unbearable love.
And then there was a surprise second baby, who showed up a year earlier than planned, and who was, for reasons we’ll never know, miserably unhappy for most of her early life. They were both young, so young, at the same time. Both in diapers, both clinging and crying and requiring two hands each. I disappeared. Or rather, I became the center of the universe for two very needy people and myself, the person I knew, was devoured completely by their need.
There was, for me, a mourning to motherhood that I couldn’t really grasp until I was almost past it. The shocking loss of a person I had finally started to like, the me that was building the career she wanted in a field she loved, who was singing and dancing pretty well on stage, who was spending her days surrounded by an infallible community of longtime like-minded, like-lived friends. And then one day she was gone, just like that, and she was gone for a long time.
As time went on, the babies, nearly everyone’s babies, came too. And this new shared experience bonded some of us in new ways. We connected like we had never been able to before. But other friendships dissipated, as we watched our little milk-soaked, toy-littered islands drift further apart until we were dots on each other’s horizons. Or we spent time together, all staring into the middle distance while bouncing babies on our laps, alone together between nap times, grasping for a complete sentence or a complete thought to share.
I had stopped working to stay home with the first baby. When the second came, it only made sense to stay home for more years. Everything got harder, stumbling through two nap schedules, two car seats, two people’s sniffles and whims and bowel movements, all on not enough sleep or adult connection. I made friends with the other stay-at-home-mommies. We talked about baby sleep and sensory activities and financial strain. I made friends with the nannies. We talked about the same things, but in Spanish. Without a job, without time to read or energy to go out with my husband, there was nothing else to think about. Only the babies, always the babies, and whether I was a) doing right by them and b) being seen to do right by them by everyone else.
It’s not that it wasn’t ever blissful or rewarding. Of course it was, many times. I had moments like all parents do, when they learned how to use the Elmo spoon or took toddling leaps into my arms or said “you’re the best mommy I ever had” with wide, irony-free eyes. When they fell asleep on my chest and breathed deeply into my ear and I reached for that fleeting sense that this was the deep satisfaction I was promised. And it was.
There’s a very specific kind of guilt-tinged misery that comes with being unhappy when you are #blessed and constantly reminded of the fact. When you have a deep understanding that some of your very own friends wish nightly that they could have what you have. When you know there are women, would-be mothers, who have been trying for years without success in spite of their deep desire, their diligence and hormone shots, to create the life you can’t make yourself love. When a culture has sprung up around the blissful magic of motherhood and the photography thereof, and you can’t help thinking, when you see those photos, that either everyone is lying, or something is wrong with you.
So you take those photos too, and you post them. You post the photos of Pinterest projects (an hour to set up and ten minutes of entertainment) and family movies (wiggling and screaming and picking them up off the sticky floor) and silly faces and first days of school. “So sad to see my babies go!” you post, just like everyone else, when secretly you think: I will be alone. Finally. And it’s everything I always wanted.
Now they are eight and five, and I am alone most weekdays. And it’s magical. I feel, somehow, that as they need me less I can enjoy them more.They need me, but not all the time. They want wonderful sock-footed snuggles, but they don’t want to crawl back into my body and live there. I can listen to their beautiful imaginary play in the next room, but I don’t have to hold an action figure and try to do a Spider-Man voice. I can miss them. Freelance work picks up, my dormant brain wakes up. I start to feel like I might have some value again to someone other than them. We all sleep through the night and brush our own teeth and handle our own toileting.
I can finally see them. I can see that they are wonderful, intelligent, strong-willed beauties who can still be monsters sometimes. That they are human and flawed. That I have work to do, but that I managed, in that five-year haze, to do some good work for them. I wish I hadn’t imploded in their early years, that I hadn’t closed in on myself so completely that I sucked the light out of our early days together. I can only hope that they didn’t notice the darkness.
And just like that, something has changed. I see her at Target, the young mom with one round-cheeked toddler kicking her feet in the cart and a baby in the wrap, and I envy her. I go to the library alone to pick up books I’ve ordered in peace and quiet for my own kids and I envy them as I hear the strains of “down came the rain and washed the spider out” wafting from the story time room. I smile wistfully when I drive by Gymboree and think of them in there, glassy-eyed and dutifully raising and lowering the parachute while their near-hysterical diaper-bottomed children run underneath it.
Eight years later, I miss those soul-crushing, mind-numbing days. Not the hours. Not the reality. I miss the pretty parts, the sweetness that remains after time has softened those jagged edges that felt like real pain. Somehow, in hindsight, it went by so fast.