“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
~ Albert Einstein
Almost everyone knows the famous quotation from Albert Einsten about the relativity of time. Parenting has its own peculiar relativity when it comes to the passage of time and the grown of your children.
Any parent with with a baby who’s a few months old will not tell you how they wish these precious moments they have with their children could last forever. Those parents are usually exhausted beyond reason, sleep deprived, stressed, and frazzled. They don’t think much further beyond getting a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, or dream of a day without laundry. Or a day without crying. They love their children and relish the sweet moments with them, but secretly they can’t wait until their babies are a little bit older and are sleeping longer, can sit up by themselves, be able to be left to their own devices for slightly longer periods of time.
But if those parents complain about the stress, exhaustion, frazzle, fatigue, crying, endless night time nappy changes, spit up, interrupted nights, and everything else that comes with a new baby territory, the inevitable response from the world at large is almost always “Oh, but they’re only little for such a short amount of time. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
It is one of the least helpful things you can say to a new parent. It’s discouraging. It’s demoralising. And most of all it’s dismissive. What new parents want to hear is “Yes, you’re right. Parenting can be downright awful at times. It’s really challenging. Hang in there, it will get better.”
Because it does get better. But new challenges take the place of being unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, or the seemingly never-ending witching hour of crying, or the endless bottle washing. Parents of terrible-twoers will tell you they can’t wait until their kids are old enough to be reasoned with. Parents of threenagers will tell you they can’t wait until their kids have a better understanding of empathy. Parents of school-goers will tell you they can’t wait until their kids are more independent and can find their own way to the endless rounds of after school activities and summer camps.
Every age has its beauty and wonder and frustration and madness. And ever parent needs to vent and rant occasionally to vent of steam about the latter, so that they can enjoy the former better.
The first year after our son was born is an endless blur of fatigue for me. I have beautiful photos and memories of holding him close to me, but I have no ovewhelming desire to revisit the whole experience of that first year.
Do I miss holding his tiny little hand during those early days and wondering at the miracle of this diminutive human? Yes. Do I wish I could experience the bliss of feeling his little cheek resting against my chest while he sleeps peacefully on me? Absolutely. But would I relive the whole thing again just to have those? I don’t think so.
I took a photo of the handprint caterpillar in creche earlier this week and noted with a sense of nostalgia how large his hand print has gotten compared to mine. It’s impossible for me to look at that photo, in the quiet of my office, and not contemplate the inescapable, immutable, unstoppable passage of time and growth of my son. In these moments, I can regret not appreciating many things about him since he was born. I can wish for a chance to relive some of those moments.
But these feelings are a luxury. I don’t have time to think of these things when I’m at the coalface of parenting. When my husband and I are struggling to dress a kid that is refusing to put on trousers and it feels like he has suddenly sprouted four extra limbs with which to fend off your feeble attempts to impose clothes on his person. When he’s refusing to eat anything actually present in your kitchen. When he throws a tantrum simply because you dared to be the one to turn on the light in the living room rather than picking him up so that he could do it himself.
Nostalgia for the halcyon moments of childrearing is a luxury available to people who are not experiencing the hellish side of the same coin. You can appreciate the wonder and still be frustrated by it all. You can miss the days of those teeny tiny fingers and still prefer to look forward to the days when you can have a rational conversation with your child.
Time for parents is unchangeable and relative at the same time depending on from which side of the great divide you are looking at. At the moment, I have little time or sympathy for tut-tutting of people who think I’m not appreciating the wonder of motherhood sufficiently with my complaints. But in my more tranquil moments, I can abstractly understand that they are coming from the opposite end of the road, where their children have grown and no longer rely on them for everything, and the absence of this sort of responsibility creates an inexorable sense of emptiness that they seek to fill by reminding others who have not reached the same stage of the parenting journey that they must appreciate and savour every moment.
But the truth is that we can’t. It is not in our nature as human beings. Parents of your children will always wish their way forward to a time when things get easier, while parents of older or adult children will always wish their was backward to a time when things were simpler.
I remind myself of this in the quiet moments I can share with my son. When he’s falling asleep next to me. When he’s pressed against my side while we’re reading a book. When he’s staring me in the face full of joy and laughter. I try to bank each moment that I can appreciate and not dwell too hard on the parts that I can’t appreciate. But I will bristle at anyone who tries to direct me to do that. I know that years and years down the line, I will be one of those parents glibly telling others younger than me to savour each moment, and it will be my turn to be the target of resentment.
This is the endless cycle of parenting and time.