The Indiana legislature claims it wants to protect unborn children and their parents. Last week Governor Mike Pence gave his blessing to a new bill aimed primarily at restricting abortion but also addressing miscarriage, explaining, “I sign this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families.” But knowing what I do about pregnancy and miscarriage, all I can see is increased pain and confusion in store for women who lose pregnancies in Indiana…
“Cherish every moment! It goes by so fast.” A well-meaning stranger admired my teeny tiny 3-week-old son, as we searched for baby wipes at the local drugstore. Out on our first foray into an inhabited, public space, I was ready to defend my newborn against strangers’ germy fingers, but I had not been prepared for the free advice I might find just as difficult to handle. I smiled thinly at the friendly stranger, and said, “uh huh!” But I was thinking, “are you nuts?! I’ve been on a forced march around Berkeley for most of the past 18 hours with this crazy baby who won’t sleep unless he is in my arms and I am on my feet. I am not cherishing. I am just barely coping. And soon I will not be coping, I will be crying in a heap on the floor in this CVS.” And I walked home, wondering what kind of a lousy mother I was, barely able to survive motherhood, when experienced parents seemed to think I should be having a fabulous time.
“Cherish every moment!” I heard this while I was with my babies grocery shopping, strolling through town, bouncing them in the lobby during church, even several times on airplanes. Somehow, it was never when my children were doing something adorable and easy-to-appreciate, like making woodchip ice cream cones at the playground and serving me any flavor I wanted, even when I asked for broccoli and asparagus sorbet. It was when they must have been looking pretty cute at the moment, but a minute earlier the baby had been destroying the stroller canopy just to get my attention, while the toddler was dragging at my hand and whining that we just had to stop for a donut at the cafe or he wouldn’t walk another step. For a long time, nearly every time I heard it, I would be left terribly guilty for what I was actually feeling, which was much closer to “tolerating” than “cherishing.”
When my elder son was six months old, I took a solo cross-country plane flight with him. He cried on the way up, but he wouldn’t nurse, he just latched on and pulled off repeatedly, until I was in too much pain to keep trying and I just bounced and shushed him helplessly as he wailed. He did finally calm down, but I was pretty shaken and wondering how we would make it through the flight. After several touch-and-go hours, while we were pacing up and down the aisle, an older woman stopped me: “It goes by so fast — cherish every moment!” This time, I just couldn’t agree with her. I said curtly, “yes, well, sometimes it doesn’t go by fast enough.” She smiled and replied, “oh, yes, the days can be slow, it’s the years that fly by.” What a relief. She didn’t expect me to be enjoying myself necessarily; she was trying to tell me something else.
As my children grow, I have spent a lot of time pondering what that “something else” might be. I am starting to understand it better, now that I have emerged from the overwhelming experience of parenting babies and toddlers. My younger son recently turned 7, and lives most of his life as a “big boy,” the baby in him only re-emerging when he is particularly tired or scared. My two boys have grown so capable, chasing each other on the playground, carelessly dashing and swinging and throwing themselves from one playset to another, and I have to remind them not to run over the little ones. Now I am one of those friendly strangers who grin at cute babies and chat with wobbly toddlers. I feel myself light up at the unbearable sweetness of small children with their big eyes and busy hands exploring the world. I find myself tempted to pass on my own pearls of hard-earned parenting wisdom to the caretakers of these precious little beings.
Might I be tempted to tell one of my fellow travelers at the playground, as she strategically positions herself under the playset to catch an unsteady but ambitious new walker, to “cherish every moment?” No — not yet, anyway. But I am starting to understand the temptation. At those moments, when the tedium of playground tending turns to reflection, I think about what exactly it is that other parents have been trying to share with me. At this point in my parenting life, I understand “cherish every moment” to mean several different things. It can mean, “Watching your child reminds me of the best moments with my own.” It can mean, “I wish I had had the patience and perspective to enjoy what is so sweet about this stage, when at the time it mostly seemed hard.” Most profoundly, I think people mean, “Your child is a blessing on the world. Thank you for bringing her out into the world, for sharing a few moments of her sweetness and life with me.”
I choose to hear the last meaning ring the loudest. I do not have the strength to take on strangers’ regret, or to regard the present moment with nostalgia that is meant for the past. And parents inevitably have a different relationship to their children than do casual acquaintances, or even extended family members. Parents’ relationships with their children are deep, and imbued with responsibility, and weather many, many conflicts over time. We often can’t see pure sweetness in our toddler’s grin, because we know it’s the grin he flashes just before he runs into the playground parking lot just to make us dash after him and scoop him up into safety, our hearts pounding and our voices scolding.
So, if you are a kind stranger chatting with my adorable children, please understand that I cannot, in reality, cherish every moment. But, now that I understand something more about what you mean, I gladly share this particular moment with you. And I will try to see it through your eyes, and enjoy it with you.
If you are the frantic parent of the restless toddler on the airplane, or the wriggly baby in the church pew in front of me, thank you for sharing a moment of your little one’s life with me. He is a blessing on the world, a reminder of why we keep going, of why we become parents. Thank you for doing the hard part, so that I can savor the sweetness of his tiny fingers and mischievous smile. I will not tell you to cherish this moment, but you can be sure that I will.
Maybe my perspective will change again as my children grow, when they start to find my lap too small, and prefer friends’ company over Mommy’s, and don’t need to be tucked in, and make their own plans, and eventually leave for college. Maybe I will feel more regret, more nostalgia, wish that I had been more patient, and more accepting, and parented with more perspective. Maybe I will want to urge young parents to cherish every moment, to see what I failed to see myself. From what I can know right now, though, I hope that I will accept that parenting is bittersweet, and that even the good parts are often too intense to be precisely enjoyable. And I hope that I will be free to cherish the fleeting moments I will have with adorable babies in church and on airplanes and in grocery stores, all the places where I am so much more likely to enjoy them than are their parents. And, most of all, I hope that I can let those moments bring back wonderful memories of my own sweet boys, when they were chunky babies and rollicking toddlers, and enjoy those memories with just a faint spice of fond nostalgia.
The dentist peered in my child’s mouth, then turned to me. “Hey, Mom, you did a good job, no cavities!” I brought my kids for a check-up recently, and our wonderful pediatric dentist warmly complimented me. But why on earth did he call me that? And why did it irk me?
In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior asks why American middle-class parents so often find parenting intense beyond expectation, exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and not much fun, at the same time that they evaluate it to be the most rewarding and joy-producing aspect of their lives.
Like many readers, I appreciated seeing myself and my struggles represented with compassion. I have spent a number of years as a stay-at-home parent writing books during naptimes. I would have felt guilty admitting that I found playing with toddlers incredibly tedious if my own wonderful stay-at-home mother hadn’t admitted that she felt the same way, and assured me that it was ok. I always felt that the mismatch between the attention span of an academic writer (same project for a decade? no problem!) and a 2-year old was painful. Senior points to this as a more generally-experienced mismatch between adult and toddler cognitive styles, and connects it to the concept of “flow,” or being “in the zone.” Adults thrive on focused activities, which makes it hard to enjoy many hours of the company of someone who changes focus every 30 seconds. I read Senior’s analysis, and thought, “aha! It isn’t just me!”
But my favorite aspect of Senior’s book is that she takes history seriously, and uses it to great effect. I believe, with Senior, that knowing where our culture and society have been can tell us a lot about where we are now. Even more powerfully, it can show us that what we take for granted as universal human experience is often, in fact, shaped dramatically by the time and place in which we live. As she says, “Any good history provides useful context for present-day conventions and belief systems, but reading about the history of childhood is especially startling, because we tend to think of our beliefs about children as instinctive, and therefore as unchanging, irreducible” (p. 127). Once we know that our deeply-held beliefs may instead be historically malleable, we can start to imagine how to make improvements.
Senior draws extensively on two of my favorite historical works about childhood: Sidney Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of Childhood and Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child. She shows how as the role of children changed between the colonial period and the mid-twentieth century, the experience of parenting changed dramatically as well. Children had been contributors to the family economy, and good parenting meant imparting traditional skills for earning a living. In the twentieth century, children were withdrawn from the labor market, and increasingly the assumption was that parents would work for the benefit of their children, not vice versa. As children became “priceless,” they were sentimentalized. Parents increasingly had children for the emotional depth they expected that children would bring to their lives, rather than to guarantee a means of financial support in old age.
By the twenty-first century, parenting was mostly about “happiness,” in one way or another, rather than concrete things, like food, clothing and financial support. The prime parenting goal became producing happy children. And the special relationship parents had with their children was supposed to make them happy. This has turned out to be, at best, an elusive goal. It’s much easier to give another person food, shelter and an education than to give that person happiness. And the result has been a lot of anxiety and guilt.
While I think that Senior is correct about the source of current middle-class parenting distress, I do wonder if we might see an eighteenth and nineteenth century analogue in parents’ worry about the state of their children’s souls. It is as hard to make someone “saved” as to make them “happy.” And evidence from past centuries’ sermons and diaries certainly indicates that many fathers and mothers felt this concern about their children, from early childhood through their children’s adulthood, and worried and pestered their kids in attempts to make them into believers. Is “happiness” totally different, or is it the secular faith of twenty-first century America?
Occasionally, Senior looks directly to the past for inspiration. Perhaps “duty” is not such a bad concept after all. Maybe sacrifice can be a virtue. But mostly, she uses history to show us why we so often feel anxious, guilty or frantic. It’s not us; it’s our current parenting culture. In the end, she compassionately assures us that it is ok to be content with “joy,” and lose the guilt when “fun” is too high a bar.