My beautiful grandmother (Oma) used to tell me that she would “give years of her life to have her children small again”. I remember hearing her say this when I was a teenager, then again when I was a new mother.
The poignancy of that statement bounces against my heart-walls even today.
I know I’m not alone.
You’ve heard the stories of well-meaning elders wistfully begging new parents in the grocery store to “soak it up now” or “it all goes so fast”. (As they smile across an adorable tantrum.)
Maybe someone’s even said it to you.
“Soak it up now”
“Enjoy them! It ends too soon!”
“Treasure them. One day they’ll be teenagers.”
“The days are long, but the years are short.”
And so, of course, we try. WE TRY to enjoy them, to avoid the fate of wishing we could have absorbed our babies back into our bodies.
We try to keep perspective and remember that it’s not forever.
We feverishly smell them and gaze at them and push away the threat that we’ll one day forget.
My grandmother’s plea for her babies creates in me an urgent fervor to consume all of the moments, all of the sensations. I remember trying so hard to actively appreciate the evaporating time. To hug my babies tight enough that I’d hold on to every detail, forever.
I would judge myself harshly for every thought that wasn’t pure appreciation and enjoyment.
“Why can’t I appreciate this stage?
Why do I just want a break?
Where’s my gratitude?”
Any time I felt a smidgen of wanting-to-just-get-them-to-sleep-so-I-can-relax, I would determine:
Either I’m a terrible mother
Or those biddies don’t know shit.
But what if it’s neither? What if there is an invisible gate we walk through as we age that magically transforms our challenging experiences into great and smiling memories?
I’m on this side. The wise elders are on the other.
I’m in the trenches and “touched out”, on little sleep and severe self-neglect. I need two days of silence and a clean house.
They have experienced their children leaving and the silence that follows. They yearn for noise and laughter and chaos again.
There is a fundamental difference between those stages in life. But there’s also a fundamental difference in the way our brains PERCEIVE events in our lives.
It turns out, our brains are wired for precisely this phenomenon.
Our brains today, in this moment? We fixate on the shitty parts (probably to help us fix the problems and keep ourselves alive).
Our brains as we look back? Ah. The brain recalls the BEST PARTS. It forgets the tough aspects and re-visions the past as glorious!
Daniel Kahneman calls these two selves the “Experiencing Self” and the “Remembering Self”.
The Experiencing Self sees the bad parts first. But then the Remembering Self wistfully recalls the best parts.
If you want to geek out, watch his Ted talk on the topic:
If you just want a quick and dirty version, read this article.
If you like science, read his paper.
So if our brains don’t work that way, what can we do?
Does this mean we’re destined to drudge through life, optimistically looking to the future and nostalgically yearning for the past? Are we trapped in this shitty today?
I don't think we have to accept that fate. I think we can harness our wiring into helping us NOW.
These are hacks to access your “remembering self” enough to get a long-view.
1. Watch your children sleep.
You’ve likely already experienced this. You’ll go through hours of frustration as you deal with crying and just want this kid to GO TO SLEEP. Then as soon as they’re out, you just stare at them and feel bad about your previous frustration. Watching them sleep gives you perspective.
2. Record mundane moments (video or audio) and replay.
The distance you get when you watch or hear your life from another perspective helps you see the adorable tininess of your children. And keep these recordings to play later! That’s how you can appreciate how quickly they grow.
I have little videos of my dance-parties with my kids for the past 10 years. I treasure them more than any professional photo shoot.
3. Think of funny story to tell someone every day.
If you are with your child when your partner is at work, take note of the GOOD things the kid did that day. You may be exhausted and need a break, but choosing to observe the great moments gives you perspective. It doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses – but maybe one shiny moment can break it up.
4. Write down one memorable moment every day.
Along with the above, you can record these good times for yourself. I love the 5-minute journal, which helps you rewire your brain for gratitude and happiness. There’s also the One-Line-a-Day journal (affiliate link). Or make it even easier with an app! Here's a great list of Journaling Apps from Working Mother.
Viewing your life as an anthropologist would observe a foreign culture helps. “Today the mother was clearly tired but she still managed to feed her offspring and maintain proper hygiene.”
5. TAKE LOTS OF PICTURES.
This was another piece of advice my grandmother gave me. I’ve been terrible at it. In fact, this the first year I had family pictures made, and I’m so grateful I did.
You may think that your current life is how it always will be, but it does truly pass quickly. Taking pictures means you can look back on it and have evidence when you’re in that “remembering self” brain.
And while you're at it, take pictures of the hard parts, too.
I remember the way I felt in this moment- frustrated, tired and not getting the help I needed. Now, 11 years later? I have compassion for previous myself and keep thinking how cute my kids were. I WISH I had more pictures like this now.
6. Look at old pictures.
Scroll through your phone. Immerse yourself in a sense of time.
7. Get breaks while you’re IN IT.
Go out and be a not-parent for an evening. Nothing will make you miss them more. When my children were 2, 4 and 6, I would trade with another mother once a week. Every Wednesday she would take mine for a daytime and every Thursday I would take her four kids. It was glorious. And I needed to miss them every once in a while.
THE GOOD NEWS.
Even if you just white-knuckle it, doing the best you can, but worn out and checking your phone too much, your memories will be better than your present reality.
Soak up what you can.
What else have YOU found that gives you perspective in the trenches?