It’s a Sunday morning and I’m the first one up, even though the stiffness in my back makes it feel like I’ve slept too long. Each of the doors I pass on the landing is closed; on the other side of them are slumbering figures that won’t be seen for hours.
Back in my office, I sit down at my desk with a steaming mug of coffee and a satisfied sigh. No one needs anything from me, nothing is asking for my attention. There’s a pocket of uninterrupted time waiting to be filled that still feels oddly unfamiliar. But I decide to lean into it anyway and let a smug feeling fill the space with me. I’m firmly planted in the stage of parenthood that feels so elusive when we are in the trenches, and most of the time it feels really good.
And then it comes and finds me: a Facebook memory from a decade ago has come up on my screen and thrown me. I’m starting at our now-13-year-old daughter as she stands in an open field wearing a serious expression. A sound rises up and manages to escape before I can bring my hand over my mouth. Despite knowing better, I lean in closer to study the tiny coat she’s wearing and, for some reason, I can’t take my tear-filled eyes off the zipper. I am thinking about the hundreds (possibly thousands) of times I tugged it up and down again. Surely, I cursed it often—while rushing to get to our next destination or attempting to free a squirmy toddler. So why am I coming undone looking at it now?
The memories are coming as fast as my tears, as I think of the dimples on the backs of each of my three daughters’ hands, when they would grab hold of the tab and pull as hard as they could during their me-do-it phases. Inexplicably, I wish I could go back and tug on it again.
If you are parenting young children, and pulling your reheated mug of coffee from the microwave on repeat, I know you don’t want to hear another “enjoy it now, because it goes quickly” lecture. I am not so far from those days that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to get through the hard and exhausting grind of parenting children who need your full attention. We let those kinds of sentiments slip, even though we understand you’re too tired to hear them, because we know firsthand what you’ll miss when you get to where we’re standing. The toddlers I zipped into that coat aren’t coming back, neither are all the other stages and ages my children have moved through. In their place are newer, more independent versions. And even though this stage of parenting comes with a lot of perks, it hasn’t been easy to say goodbye.
Now that I’m past those early days, I’ve finally realized that although it was the promise of getting to the next milestone that kept me going through the slog, it was the ordinary and mundane moments that made that journey worth remembering. Hiding in those days of repetition and hand-over-hand care, were the building blocks of our lifelong bond. I know this because whenever our family gets caught up in a session of reminiscing, I’m surprised it’s the little things I’ve so easily forgotten that my children have held onto.
When I look back at the “decade of delirium”, as I like to call it, the details of each of their milestones get muddled and blurred. I was getting through the days, falling into bed exhausted, and looking forward to the days I would have more time for myself. But now, sitting alone on a Sunday morning crying about a photo of a zipper on a coat, I am thinking about the weight of their hands on my shoulders, whenever I helped to zip them into a coat or cram their feet into shoes.
I’m not asked for help with getting dressed anymore, and I barely have a leg to stand on when it comes to suggesting which outerwear best suits the weather that day. They are staying up long after I’ve gone to bed and borrowing keys to cars that take them to places without me. They are moving further from me, physically and emotionally, and many times I feel jittery and anxious when no one is looking for me—like I’m forgetting something. And, I suppose I am.
I’m forgetting what it’s like to be needed.
Just before Covid, I watched my youngest child exit our minivan to head into her piano lesson, and before I had a chance to take my seatbelt off and walk her to the door, she casually turned and said, “Bye, Mom, I’ll see you at pick up!” and I realized she was inviting me to stay in my seat. I thought about all the times I’ve unbuckled myself so I could walk around to the back and unbuckle my kids and, now, on an ordinary day, during an ordinary drop off, it was over.
The tsunami of emotions unleashed by a photo of a harmless zipper is the culmination of a thousand last moments that have come and surprised me. I look for them in all our old photos now, focusing on the scattered toys, baskets of books, and the hand-me-down couch in the background. In their place now are piles of shoes big enough for me to wear, discarded sweaters on the backs of chairs, and schoolwork that amazes me with its complexity. I don’t know what they’re into, what they’re reading, or what kind of music they’re listening to unless they take the time to share it with me. And even though they are safely in their beds on the other side of those closed doors, I miss them.
When my 13-year-old emerges from her room later, I show her the photo. And the first thing she notices is the coat, too. “I loved that coat! Every time you would pick me up, I’d slide down your hip because it was so shiny.” I had forgotten that used to happen and that we would turn it into a game by looking at each other and saying, “Wheeeeee!!!” But she remembered.
The saying goes that the days are slow when you are in them, but fast when you look back on them. One day, not too far from now, the coffee in our mugs will be steaming again and our kids will step into the world without us. That time is coming quickly for me. So, will you do me a favour the next time you kneel down to zip a coat? Will you let yourself feel the weight of their hands as they use you to balance, look into their smiling faces, and search for the dimples in the backs of their hands?
Because one day, not very long from now, you will forget what it’s like to be needed like that and you’ll miss it more than you can know.