Last week we dropped my newly 3-year-old off for her first day of preschool. I was so focused on her frame of mind, her mood, that I hadn’t taken much stock of what it meant to me to send my youngest child off to school. Kyra was so happy about starting, so ready. I guess she’d been watching her older sister far more closely than I’d realized all these years because she walked right in, put her lunch in her cubby, removed her shoes and put on her slippers, then joined the other children in a circle to wait for class to begin.
As the door began to close, I saw a last glimpse of her, so completely absorbed in her new world, one which had nothing to do with me or the countless mornings we’d spent together just the two of us alone—and I began to sob. It was as if every moment from birthing her in our bathroom to teaching her to sing duets with me pounded through mind.
I was wholly unprepared for this well of emotion that rose up inside me and poured down my face. I had things to do, so much to accomplish with this precious time. But I was incapacitated by the enormity of the thing and all I wanted to do was go grab her out of there and go home, get back in our pajamas and sing.
On Facebook, where my generation seems to process our emotions and milestones, I told a friend I was proud to be giving my girls such strong roots and wings, but that I hadn’t realized how much I’d be watering those roots with my tears. It’s moments like these that the term “bittersweet” is made for. Nothing better captures that sense of being sure and happy about a change, all at the same time feeling torn apart and wishing the whole thing had never happened in the first place.
I’m reminded of that woman in the grocery store, you moms know who I mean. She’s the one who wistfully watches you push your kids around in the cart, staring longingly after you. She often comes up and tells you how sweet they are, no matter what kind of behavior they’re exhibiting at the time. Then she looks seriously into your eyes and says, “Enjoy every moment, Mom, it goes so fast!” And you look at your kids, crying for impulse items and fighting for space in the cart, and you know it’s true, and you know there’s nothing you can do about it right now. So you go back to your crazy life and tell yourself you’ll appreciate them more later on, when things are more quiet. If you can only get through this errand, you will appreciate your kids the very next thing when you get home!
The truth is, that there are things you can do to increase your appreciation of your kids, I’ve written about them in the past. But it’s impossible to be as appreciative of as the lady in the supermarket would if she could go back for one day to a time when her nest was full, her kids still in pigtails. And that’s just the way life is. I think worrying about it is the worst thing we can do in response to the idea that our kids grow up fast. None of us can live in appreciation all of the time and worrying about it, or worse, feeling guilty about it, only adds insult to injury and makes it that much harder to feel grateful and present.
It’s like the parents who tell you, after you have your first child, how much more easygoing you will be with your subsequent kids. “You won’t believe how much you’ll shrug off all these little things you’re stressing over now. Pretty soon they’ll be eating off the floor of public buildings and you’ll look the other way,” they giggle. Then, as if that isn’t enough to make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, they add, “My advice is to try to raise your first as if she were your second, she’ll end up far less neurotic in the end.”
Is there anything less ridiculous? How is that even possible? After you’ve had your first child, you’ve already made giant changes in your life you just don’t have to make as you continue to add on to your family. So it’s much easier. Similarly, you’ve already made all the countless decisions that come up at least once before, so even if you make different ones with the next, at least the playing field is a familiar one, most of the variables known. Also, when you see your eldest growing up, you already feel that sense of longing for an earlier time when they were younger, sweeter, closer, etc. So when you get a second chance, a new baby who still has all those wonderful stages ahead of her, you can’t help but treasure them more and stress less. It’s the reason the ride home always seems shorter than the way there: You’ve done it all before.
So if trying to enjoy parenting and stay present means you are further concerned about something else you aren’t doing right, what’s the point? I say, who needs the guilt? Just accept that you can’t always appreciate every moment and move forward. Just get done what you need to get done, take care of yourself, come from love. Then one day, when faced with an empty nest, you’ll receive a welcome gift to your new life: a bountiful gift basket brimming with memories—bittersweet joys that may make you cry, but will also fill your heart with all the love and joy raising children can bring. And that’s something that isn’t fleeting. Luckily, these memories are something that will stay with you forever.