My toddler climbs the steps of the play structure and sits down on the platform. He arranges his feet in front of him and scoots himself forward until he is sitting at the top of the slide. He looks at me to make sure I’m watching. I’m watching all right. Then he scoots himself forward one more inch and, whoosh, he slides to the bottom. His very first time on his own. He runs to me, grinning. And I am filled with a mixture of love and sadness which, to me, is the signature emotion of parenthood.
Now that I’m a mother, I find I am constantly looking into the future, excited for what my son will do next, and, simultaneously, longing for the moments that have already passed us by. I can’t wait for him to learn something new—to crawl, to walk, to speak—but, at the same time, I know that this stage, this moment, will only last so long. It will only happen once, for a second, and be gone forever.
Sometimes, in the busy, careening hours of our day there comes a moment where time stands still. I look at my son, sitting on the floor, methodically putting his farm animals into a box and then taking them out again and I send up a silent prayer: Thank you, God, for this little boy. For who he is, and who we are together, in this exact moment. And then the sheep will fall out of the box and my son will get mad and throw all the animals on the floor and I’ll find myself exasperatedly wishing he was older so he could tell me why the heck he’s crying.
We are always being counseled to live in the moment. If, conventional wisdom goes, I could just make each moment like that time-standing-still moment then I would be living life to the fullest. I would be fully present for my son and know that we were both getting the most out of our lives together. And there’s something to be said for that, I guess. Of course, dinner would never be on the table and the laundry would never be done if I never planned ahead. But all that aside, I think there’s something to be said for looking into the future and yearning for the past.
Part of being a parent is learning to live with the constant ache of knowing that, one day, your children will grow up. You want them to grow up, of course (it beats the alternative), but it will mean that so many things (so very many wonderful things) will be over. For good. But, for me, it’s this knowing that makes everything so wonderful.
Imagine if you didn’t know that it would end. When your toddler throws himself into your lap while you’re reading a book and plants a sticky kiss on your cheek, nuzzling his head into your shoulder, you might sigh in frustration. You were trying to read! Now you’ve lost your place. It’s because you know that the days of hugs given from a running start are numbered that you throw your book to the side, unmindful of what page you were on, and wrap your arms around your little boy.
When your 1st grader brings home a card that says “Happy Mother’s Day” with a blob she informs you is a unicorn scribbled on the front you might toss it to the side without a second glance thinking, I got one of these last year. It’s because you know that the days of the homemade card are numbered that you hang it prominently on your refrigerator and point it out to all your guests.
When your middle-schooler scoots over in bed to make space for you to sit down and read him the next chapter in the book you’re reading together you might tell him, “Not tonight, son, I’m tired.” It’s because you know that the days of read-alouds and pre-bedtime snuggles are numbered that you climb under that Captain America bedspread and hold that little boy (who’s not so little now) close.
You see, my son doesn’t remember what has come before and he can’t fathom what is still to come. All he knows is that today he can slide down the slide and yesterday he couldn’t. It’s me that sees the timeline of our lives, reaching back into the past and spreading out into the future. And it’s my heart that, in each moment we have together, breaks for what has already passed us by and bursts with excitement for what is yet to come. So I steal a kiss at the bottom of the slide and I hold him close for a moment. And then I let him go.