When my kids were little, I’d proudly parade them through Target, the grocery store and the mall, always conscious of how others would stare at us. I remember other women leaning over to get a closer look at one of my adorable offspring, squealing in delight about how cute they were.
Sometimes people could get a little too close for comfort, and I drew the line at touching. Everyone knows babies are hard to resist, but Mama Bear could appear out of nowhere to shoot someone the “keep your hands to yourself” look if they dared try to pinch my little one’s cheeks or tickle those wiggly toes.
I remember how people used to look right past me and talk directly to my kids — as if they were sitting there alone in the front of a shopping cart without a parent in sight. Perfect strangers would break out in baby talk, cooing and fussing over my children as if they loved them as much I did.
I don’t recall thinking it was weird at the time. I was flattered. My kids were adorable. Why wouldn’t people fuss over them? I’d puff up my chest, beaming with pride over the lives that my husband and I had created and brought into this world.
That Aha Moment
But something struck me today while I was waiting in line at the pharmacy. Standing behind a young mother with an adorable toddler slung over her shoulder, I stared into his crystal blue eyes. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. He stretched his arms out and waved his pudgy fingers at me, squirming to break free from his mom. I resisted the urge to reach for him as if he were one of my own.
That’s when it hit me. Those women who had looked longingly at my kids back in the day probably weren’t as enamored with them as I was. How do I know that now? Because as soon as I locked eyes with the cutie in front of me, my mind skipped over any further details, sending me back in time to a place where I could clearly visualize my own kids at that age.
The young mother and her son were suddenly invisible to me and I was gazing into the eyes of my own toddlers. Just as they were back when. When they were living under my roof…accompanying me to the store…and occupying every second of my time and energy.
The ups and downs of empty-nesting
Now they’re grown and gone. I’m an empty nester, adjusting just fine. Sometimes even enjoying the peace and quiet. Until I come upon someone like the woman in the pharmacy who seems to be living my old life.
When I was wearing her shoes, it never dawned on me that some random middle-aged woman I encountered in public could be reminiscing about her own family as she was engaging with mine. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of occasions when I live my life in the present, and I can walk in and out of Target without getting sentimental about how quickly the time has passed. (Yes, I spent a lot of time wandering the aisles at Target when my kids were little. Still do.)
But there are other times when my memories ambush me. Out of nowhere, they stop me in my tracks and leave me wondering whether I’d made the most of the days when my children were a daily presence. It’s during those times that I want to make sure parents with young children truly understand how important it is to cherish every moment with their kids when they’re young.
The urge to offer advice
There are endless messages I want to scream at the top of my lungs, like:
The laundry and the dishes can wait.
If you think that ridiculously mismatched outfit is inappropriate for school, bite your tongue.
If your kids want to watch that Disney movie for the umpteenth time, what’s the harm?
If they want breakfast for dinner, make pancakes—with chocolate chips.
If they they want to paint your fingernails, sit still.
If you can help it, don’t miss one moment of it. Not one soccer game…one holiday concert…one bedtime story. There will be plenty of opportunity for “me time” when your kids have left the nest.
Trace Adkins, one of my favorite country singers, says it best:
“You’re gonna miss this. You’re gonna want this back. You’re gonna wish these days, hadn’t gone by so fast!”
The resistance to heed the advice of others
But when my life revolved around naps, play dates and tubby time, I wasn’t so keen on hearing from other people who had “been there, done that.” The last thing I wanted someone to tell me when my kid was throwing a temper tantrum at Kohl’s, and I couldn’t get her to sit back down in her stroller, is that I should be cherishing that moment.
That’s why I swore—no matter what—that I’d never be one of “those women” when I got older. The ones that seize any opportunity to hand out parental advice any time they encounter someone who appears to need it. The ones that continually say, “when my kids were young” and hold themselves out as the expert on child-rearing. Sometimes even when you’ve “been there, done that,” it’s best to stay silent.
In fact, thanks to one of “those women,” I experienced one of the most humiliating experiences as a new mom when my oldest daughter was only a few weeks old. It was the first time I’d ventured outside my house since she was born. I needed to pick up a few things at a local baby supplies store and wanted to avoid maneuvering my oversized stroller through the narrow aisles. I strapped her into our Baby Bjorn — one of those soft infant carriers that looks like a backpack but fits across your chest — and set out to start shopping.
My daughter wanted nothing to do with it. She started wailing, as if she were in excruciating pain. My face turned beet red and I started sweating. Profusely. If you’ve had kids, you know exactly how I felt. Even though it was the middle of February, I wanted to submerge myself in a giant tub of ice. A middle-aged store clerk approached me and offered to help. It wasn’t what she said, but the way she said it, that almost made me start bawling.
“Honey,” she said with a smirk. “No wonder your little one is crying. You’ve got her in backwards and the straps are so tangled that you’re probably cutting off her circulation.”
Right then I added drowning myself in that tub of ice to my wish list.
Reluctantly, I allowed the cheeky clerk to help me out. I couldn’t have resisted her assistance even if I wanted to. Considering how panicked I felt — as if everyone else in that store was staring at me— I never would have figured out how to turn that contraption right side out on my own. Lo and behold, my daughter stopped screaming. I left that store quicker than I could change a dirty diaper and never used the Baby Bjorn again.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure that I added my own interpretation to the clerk’s “smirk.” She could have been smiling, only wanting to put an end to the suffering—mine, my daughter’s and hers. Or maybe she’d been in a similar predicament when she was younger and she was laughing at herself. But I’d hesitated to accept the hand extended to me — from someone who had clearly “been there, done that.” I was a newbie…an inexperienced parent….I needed some guidance but wasn’t thrilled about accepting it.
Maybe that’s why now that my kids are all grown, my first instinct is to keep my “wisdom” to myself, let the newbies figure it out on their own. Besides, I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all. That’s how I saw that clerk back then. Ironically, now I appreciate her stepping up as a resource.
It’s funny how perspectives change, especially in the motherhood context. What I now consider a genuine act of kindness was once perceived as intrusive and “judgy.” Just like when I resented other women for warning me how fast the time with my kids would go. I hated hearing things like, “Enjoy them while you can. Pretty soon you’ll blink and they’ll be grown.” I took it personally somehow, as if they thought I didn’t realize how important it was to treasure my own kids.
Cracking the code
Little did I know, those women had access to secrets I could never understand at the time. And those are the exact words of wisdom I’d like to pass down to the next generation. Many things simply remain incomprehensible until your kids are grown and gone.
Now, when I see young moms getting frustrated with their kids, I know exactly what they’re thinking. They’re wishing for some time alone…for their kids to be quiet and just sit still…for their kids to be able to feed themselves…take themselves to the bathroom…buckle themselves in their own car seats…be more self-sufficient overall. And yes, it’s mentally and physically exhausting taking care of little kids. No doubt I was constantly sweating. Profusely. But there’s undeniable truth in a message about how fast time will pass.
So, to all you lucky young moms out there, thanks for not judging when you catch me staring, or I start fussing over your baby. I absolutely think your little one’s adorable…especially since our encounter triggered a walk down memory lane, transporting me back in time to some of the best days of my life!
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