Originally published on my previous blog on July 23, 2011.
For two weeks, while the kids took swimming lessons every day at a local outdoor pool, a friend and I camped ourselves in a shady spot just next to the park’s wading pool. I had a front-row seat to the parade of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers arriving with their parents to get relief from the record-breaking heat. I became captivated by watching these little ones, and a little heartbroken too, at how long ago and far away my own days with infants and toddlers seem now, with my youngest child heading to kindergarten and my oldest to middle school.
A little boy, I’d guess between 18 months and two years, came with his mom every day. This child’s whole-body joy at being in the water was something to savor. He careened around the pool, swinging his legs out to the side with each step. He looked constantly a little off-kilter and in danger of falling face first into the water—which he did often, only to bounce right back up and continue his drunken-man wading pool dance.
One day, I noticed a mother walking up the hill to the wading pool with a preschool-aged boy and a baby girl in tow. The girl was clearly in the earliest stages of confident walking. She managed to stay upright, but her chubby little legs were still markedly bowed, and she walked with the deliberate, exaggerated waddle of those still adjusting to life on two legs. As they neared the pool, the baby girl came upon a wide crack in the asphalt path filled with mud. She stopped and considered this obstacle, then carefully but deliberately put one Robeez-clad foot into the muddy dip and, seeing that the ground there was reliably solid, stepped forward. As she moved ahead, she stopped once to look back, eyes wide in appreciation for this surprising little bit of earth.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off these little ones. My children are still plenty young, interested in checking out the unexpected muddy dips in their well-worn daily paths. But they are no longer quite as capable of such singlemindedness, this giving of their full attention, brain and body, to the physical experiences of water and mud and the myriad ways that a human being can put one foot in front of the other. They are more socially aware than they were as toddlers and babies, focused on who is and isn’t with them, what others are and are not doing, and calculating their actions accordingly. Their love of water goes beyond the tactile pleasures of splashing and bubbles and reflected light. Now it includes practicing swim strokes, making up games with their friends, and insisting on goggles because they don’t like the way the water feels in their eyes. The muddy dip in the road is more and more often just something to be stepped over on the way to the next thing.
I kept wondering if the moms of those two little ones were paying attention, really paying attention, to their children. Did the little boy’s mom notice his mouth shaped into an “O” of delight? Did the baby girl’s mom take note of the gaping distance between her baby’s sturdy legs—all curves and rolls—and my seven-year-old’s lanky limbs with their sharply defined calf muscles, their bruised and knobby knees?
Really, my question was this: Did I pay attention when my children were that little? Because, while I know they did ecstatic drunken-man circuits in the wading pool or under the yard sprinkler, while I know they learned to walk on fat-rolled legs and marveled at tiny surprises—feathers and shells and grass, the sound that newly shod feet make on gravel—I can’t easily conjure up images of how they looked and moved and sounded then. And I wonder, is this just the way it is? Is it impossible to really, in a palpable way, remember each stage of our children’s lives, no matter how much attention we pay? I know I paid attention. I know I looked at my children when they were babies and toddlers and said to myself, “Look at them. Really look. Because even right now, they are already changing and growing into something and someone else.”
Yet, I still can’t really remember. Which is, I suppose, why we parents take so many photos and videos. I wonder how parents in pre-photographic times bore the grief of knowing that their children’s babyhoods were utterly lost to them, knowing that while they might remember particular incidents—what room the baby took his first steps in, how their toddler daughter giggled at the dog’s antics—they have nothing concrete to remind them of their babies’ fuzzy heads, chubby cheeks, dimpled hands, square little feet, gurgling laughter, high-pitched voices. Although perhaps it was easier to be a parent in the times before we were so compelled to capture our children’s lives on film. Sometimes I don’t want to even look at my kids’ baby photos and videos, because all they do is remind me how much I’ve forgotten. And I realize that the children who are so here today, whose bodily presence is so familiar that I cannot imagine a Leah other than the one whose long suntanned limbs are so often stretched out on our den couch while she devours her latest read, a Meg other than the one whose gap-toothed grin expresses her sheer delight with the scooter-riding, game-playing, friend-loving opportunities that each day brings, or a Ben other than the one who is equally happy sucking his thumb with his head in my lap and belting out Hannah Montana songs from the “stage” he has created with our living room sofa—even these children, so incarnate, will one day become something and someone else. And I will struggle to remember, really remember them as they are today. No matter how much attention I pay.
But I pay attention anyway, as much as I can amid the necessary distractions of schedules and chores. This dynamic is just one more reminder of how foolish and full of paradox this endeavor is, this bearing and raising of children. We welcome them knowing that one day we will say goodbye. We shelter them so that eventually they can leave us. We create boundaries with the expectation that they will test them. We give them all that we have and are, so that they will be able to get along without us. We pay attention, though we cannot possibly remember all the sights and sounds, the scents and textures, the baby steps and joyful dances that mark our days as the parents of children.