I see you eyeing me, lady, and I know what you’re about to ask.
You’re noticing that my three daughters are perched precariously on the cliff of childhood before the free fall of puberty and adolescence. Though you’re looking at my kids, something tells me that you’re thinking of yours, remembering the injustices you faced during that uncontrolled plunge. Sometimes the edge makes me nervous, I admit.
Still, my answer is no. No lady, I don’t want to freeze my children at this age.
Don’t get me wrong. There are things I wouldn’t mind seeing frozen in time: my own age on occasion, or the fragile eden of a Michigan summer. I’d love to stock my freezer with a month’s worth of organic casseroles, or pull an Elsa on the polar ice caps before our climate’s screwed beyond repair. You see, I’m not anti-freezing as a rule. I just prefer that my kids stay thawed.
When my babies were small, older parents like you gave me a different adage about time. They shook their heads at my rowdy brood and reminded me to “enjoy every second because it goes by so fast.” Those words chilled my spine. I was desperate to enjoy every second, but not every second cooperated by being enjoyable. Days were a colicky blur of feeding and crying (both me and the baby); nights were the same rituals performed in stumbling darkness.
Now that my kids are out of the baby phase, time is more agreeable. Why didn’t you tell me that, lady? It turns out, when you’re not clutching a wailing infant in a sling and a toddler yanking down her dirty diaper while racing after a six-year-old about to plunge headlong into traffic, life opens up a bit! You’re able to take a deep breath and inhale something other than dried spit-up and failure. Knowing that would have cheered me up, lady. And you should know that I needed some cheer back then.
Not that the baby years didn’t have their moments. I vividly remember one of those sparkling Michigan summer afternoons when my middle daughter was learning to crawl. Her older sister, to this day a constant whoosh of energy, sat on the grass nearby, quietly folding paper towels into pirate hats for her stuffed animals.
It was a rare moment of zen, a precious chance to devote myself to the baby. I took the biggest blanket I had and spread it on the lawn for her to practice crawling. A few seconds later, her chubby legs propelled her off the edge, where she uprooted a fat fistful of grass and stuffed it into her mouth. “NO EAT!” I cried, placing her back in the center of the blanket.
She repeated this action over and over, amused by my mock surprise at her naughtiness. Each time I said no, she let out a deep belly laugh, delighting her sister. The duet of their laughter was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard, and between the bars of their sweet harmony, I approached something close to grace.
If I had the power to freeze a moment, that one would be a contender.
But I still wouldn’t do it – or at least the mother I strive to be wouldn’t. That mother would make this vow: Daughter, I’m all in. I welcome each stage you inhabit, from the gawkiness and turmoil of puberty and adolescence, through the confusing outskirts of adulthood and beyond, for as long as I’m able. I promise to love you even as the boundaries that you test grow more perilous than a mouthful of grass.
At each stage of your life, I will find you complete, even – or especially – when you’re not being cute or compliant (because as I remember from my own gawky, confusing youth, those are the times when you’ll need me the most). And I will accept the day you begin to need me less, for that day – more than any test score or acceptance letter you could bring home – will be the true measure of my success as a parent.
Of course, vows are aspirational. The real mother I am walks the dog past her old house so that she can peek into the backyard where her baby ate the grass. She becomes immersed in old photos of chubbier grins, first haircuts. The sadists over at Facebook know that most of us do these things; that’s why they greet us with “On This Day” notifications over our morning coffees.
Nostalgia is irresistible because it never fails to fascinate. The passage of time as seen through my children’s growth may startle or sadden me, but it rarely bores. As horror writer Shirley Jackson phrased it in her 1948 parenting memoir, “Life Among the Savages,” “one of the most unnerving, and least original, observations I have made about my children, is that as these years turn … they tend to grow older.”
But parenting is about cute babies and toddlers as much as marriages are about weddings – that is to say not much, and only in the beginning. The mother I strive to be will try to remember that.
So no, lady, I don’t want to freeze my kids at this age, not today at least. Get back to me to see if I’ve changed my tune in a few years, after we’ve taken the plunge.