There Will Be A Day When You Put Your Child Down And Never Pick Them Up Again
Most parents remember their children's firsts -- words, steps, smiles. But will you remember your child's lasts?
In my house the dog gets to choose when he is taken for his afternoon walk, I simply follow armed with “poo bags” and the patience of a saint. Most days he chooses the time of this walk to coincide with the ringing of the school bell around the corner signifying the end of the day.
I’m happy to go along with this timing because I have no choice and also because I love children. I love being around them, I love watching them play and I am constantly amused and enthralled with their dialogue. It should be pointed out that my intentions are nobler than my dog’s – he just likes the fact that they often drop their food.
Recently, during one of our walks we passed a shattered mum plea-bargaining with her equally exhausted toddler. “If I carry you home” she said, “you are not playing with my phone for two whole days”.
She was tired, so was he. She didn’t want to carry him, he didn’t want to walk. She used the phone as a bargaining tool, he was having none of it.
And as I heard her refuse to pick him up I wondered if she had already picked him up for the last time.
I don’t judge her for not relenting, I remember how tired I was as the mother of a toddler and how I sometimes just yearned for a little bit of space around my body. I didn’t blame her for trying to get him to walk. But I did wonder if she knew that maybe she would never pick him up again.
Because that’s the thing; you never know when you’re doing something for the last time. You aren’t consciously aware this could be the last time your child will want to be carried, before they object that they’re “too big”. You don’t know when they’ll turn around and tell you they don’t want you to read them a bedtime story or they don’t need you to cut their sandwiches. You don’t know it’s the last time they will let you kiss them good-bye at the school gate.
We clutch at the firsts because they are precious but expected, they are milestones, little ways we can tick off our child’s growth and development. We anxiously await that first smile, the first step, the first time they let go your hand and walk into the classroom. The firsts are glorious and exciting, you celebrate them because you expect them; you are waiting for them.
But then the lasts come and you don’t even know they’re happening. Suddenly your child is making their own breakfast, packing their lunch and heading off to the school gate without you. The sense that they have grown up and need you in a different way washes over you when you least expect it; it lies on you like a blanket heavy with memories and wistful recollections.
Parents of small children may accuse me of small child amnesia, they may think my memories of those early years are tinted by nostalgia and I have forgotten the exhausting, difficult and excruciatingly tedious parts of raising a child. But that’s the benefit of memory - we get to shape it and mould it so it provides us the comfort and recollection we need. We get to filter out the crying and the lack of sleep and the loneliness that often enveloped us as parents. We get to remember the joy and the love, the closeness and the bond we created.
We remember our firsts with the same love and excitement we greeted them with all those years ago, but we remember our lasts just as acutely and with all the pain of knowing that we can never get that time back.
I still walk my dog at the same time most days, I don’t know when our last walk will be, I try not to think about that. I still look at the children around me with wistful recollections of a childhood I sometimes worry I forgot to cherish.
Part of me wants to be that irritating old woman who reminds the young mother to pick up her children and hold them tight but I know it’s the me of 15 years ago I am talking to – and unfortunately she was too tired to listen.