My latest post at Families Magazine online – http://www.familiesonline.co.uk/LOCATIONS/Solent-East/Family-Life/Parenting-advice/Those-were-the-days-my-friend
During half-term I met a friend for coffee in a café on the far side of a nearby park. Walking through the park to meet her, I passed the play park that used to be my regular haunt when the girls were just a little smaller. As I walked round the perimeter heading towards the café, I glanced across at the children and parents climbing and hiding and shouting and laughing and my head was filled with memories of the times I spent there with my own children.
My very first solo walk with my tiny, fragile new born in the gaudy green-checked pram we were kindly gifted from a friend was in that very park and my memory of circling the play park with my heart in my mouth tempting myself to believe that I really was taking a walk in the park with my very own baby, just like a real parent, is still so vivid. I still have the large reddish brown leaf picked up from the path as a memento to place in my baby’s box of memories as a reminder of our very first outing (I started out with good intentions at least, although this habit of collecting keepsakes did not last much past her first birthday, and my second daughter was lucky if I managed to keep her birth certificate somewhere safe!).
As soon as Ana was old enough to sit in a swing, I made this play park my home from home. I quickly discovered that a visit to the park with a 6 month old was not a significant time filler and, after 20 minutes maximum in the toddler swings, we were pretty much all-parked out and ready to move on to the next brief activity, but as she got bigger and began to venture onto the slides, this park became as much part of our routine as tea and cake with friends (and distinctly healthier!).
Many a Saturday morning was spent with Ana, and later her baby sister too, crossing the park to visit the library before wandering round between the climbing frames braving the chilly winds or enjoying the sunshine depending on the season.
Many a day in the summer holidays was spent packing up a picnic and heading to the park to meet with friends and spend a few hours enjoying the luxury of free fun, fresh air and green space offered by a city park.
Many an afternoon was spent standing below the monkey bars waiting to catch a falling child or just to be there as a security blanket as they demonstrated their considerable muscular superiority over their puny mother!
And so, last week, as I walked past the play park, I remembered with fondness the part it has played in our lives. Its role is not quite over for us: at 7 and 9 the girls have not yet outgrown the park and we still visit reasonably frequently and still will for some time I imagine, but the days when it figured as the centre point of our entertainment schedule are fading now.
Much like the rest of parenting, I realised that afternoon that we only really appreciate things when they are soon to be gone. I’ll be the first to admit that I spent many days shivering in that park and wishing I was at home in my nice warm house; I spent many hours cursing as I was begged and cajoled to run round the edge of the lopsided circular tyre shape that has replaced the roundabout in many modern parks but is frustratingly difficult to manoeuvre without scraping your limbs on the floor; I have spent many trips to that very park attempting to find a secluded spot behind a tree for one or other of my daughters to pee because there were no nearby public toilets.
At the time, I did not relish any of these things, but now – when I see my play park years drawing to a close – I rush to cherish those memories, to box them up and hold them close and chide myself to remember the times when this used to be my playground.
My youngest daughter turns 7 on Sunday and this year, more than most, I am feeling nostalgic about leaving behind the early years of my children’s childhood.
Why is parenthood so bittersweet?
In all the madness and mayhem of life our children are constantly growing: moving away from those precious baby years and into childhood proper. And why is that so hard? Why does the memory repaint the past, conveniently glossing over all the challenges, traumas and sheer hard work of parenting babies and toddlers, leaving the over-riding feeling of loss that those days will never come again?
The joy and excitement that our children are growing, changing and emerging from their babyhood chrysalis into fully fledged little butterflies is tempered by the nagging feeling that we should have done more to cherish the times that have gone before: that we should have hugged our babies close a few more times and breathed in their unique baby-ness a little harder so as to have etched it in our minds to keep forever when we have left all that behind.
I remember how I felt with each passing stage. Sure, there was a tinge of sadness when we packed up the cot and passed it on to someone with a younger family; maybe I felt a little ache of regret when we no longer had a child in need of nappies; but in reality, I had my eye on the prize and the prospect of leaving the house without a nappy bag and change of clothes filled me with an overwhelming sense of relief rather than sadness.
I know I have inwardly whooped with joy on more than one occasion since my children were happily ensconced in backless booster seats and able to put on their own seat belts. The memories of so many frustrated occasions leaning awkwardly over the backseat trying to get the dratted seat belt into the clip are still clear enough in my mind to make me glad on a daily basis that I no longer have to face that task on a rainy day with an uncompliant toddler!
But still I ache sometimes to stand with my baby on my shoulder, rocking gently in that familiar motion, feeling their breath on my cheek.
When I tell other people this they sometimes ask ‘so are you broody then? Do you want another baby?’ But in truth, I don’t. I don’t yearn for another baby to take through those years anew. What I yearn for is the chance to have all the precious moments from my daughters’ baby years gathered in one place so that I could dip in when the feeling takes me and be back in that moment, just as it was, just for a second, just to make it real once again.
It is not another baby I yearn for, and equally I have no desire to go back and re-live those years again. I have moved on; WE have moved on. I love my growing children: I love seeing them becoming themselves, developing personality quirks that are unique to them. I love watching them learn about the world and begin to discover their own talents and interests. I love being able to chat to them about their lives, and my life and LIFE. I love hearing their voices on the phone and realising with a jolt that they sound so grown up.
No. The paradox here is that I want both of these things. I want them to keep growing and changing and yet I also want to be able to stay in the moment. All of their moments.
I want to capture those moments as they happen and keep them in real time so they are not lost in a haze of memories but stay clear and true.
It is not a baby I yearn for, it’s MY babies across all their lifetime. The past, the present and the excitement of the future all wrapped up in one parcel to treasure.
And that’s parenting: joy and excitement; frequent frustration; impatience to move forward and sadness to leave things behind.
As my children reach the age at which I am able to remember my own parallel childhood experiences, it is becoming increasingly apparent that things seemed so much calmer then.
I have strong, comforting memories of having tea and an iced bun in the bakery with my mum before going to chess club at the library on a Friday evening after school (yes, you heard me – chess club. It was fun actually!). In my head this was always lovely. We had a nice chat, ate our cakes and all was right with the world.
So why is it that I am apparently incapable of recreating this peaceful idyll with my own children? Even the shortest trip to a café will involve at least one snappy exchange, invariably triggered by my pleas for the girls to ‘sit down’, ‘stop shouting’, ‘pull that skirt down so the whole café can’t see your knickers’, ‘stop flicking cake at your sister’……and on and on ad infinitum.
Occasionally I think it is my unwillingness to let anything slide that creates the problems in the first place, so I fight the urge to criticise and attempt to bite my tongue…..for about a minute. Because now, in a public place, I appear to be allowing my children to behave like untrained monsters and the only thing worse than feeling like your children are out of control, is thinking that OTHER PEOPLE think your children are out of control!
My only hope is that things were not actually calmer in my childhood but rather our memories are highly skilled at editing out the small irritations of life. If this is the case, then maybe my children do stand a chance of having comfortingly nostalgic memories of tea and cake with their mother and only I will remember the chaos and trauma……and I will keep those bits to myself.
After all, nostalgia really is a wonderful thing….