As soon as I became a mother, I also became a juggler.
A juggler in the tangible sense: infant car seat in one hand; keys, coffee, cellphone in the other; a diaper bag slung over one shoulder, elbowing through the front door in an acrobatic feat of laziness to avoid a second trip.
But a juggler of intangibles, too: of career aspirations and “me time” and mom guilt; of endless to-do lists and competing priorities and unmet goals; of should’ves, could’ves, would’ves; of hopes and dreams for the future, fading against the pressing reality of a rooster tail up my newborn’s back.
Along with motherhood comes many challenging balancing acts. And chief among them is finding the right balance in time. As mothers, we’re faced in a profound new way with the task of remembering the past, living in the present and planning for the future, all in the right increments.
Parenthood seems to change the very nature of time. Until my son was born, life was chugging along at a predictable pace. Each day followed the last at a steady march. Then a child came into our lives, and — boom — time somehow slipped away from us. It both sped up and slowed down. Those long, sleepless nights slogging through the newborn fog seemed to drag on for ages. But then we blinked and our son was already a year old. Then two years old. Then three.
In the battleground of conflicting views and vociferous opinions on virtually every aspect of parenthood, there’s one thing we all agree on: It goes much too fast.
Now we have three children, and I still feel like it was only yesterday that I saw that faint blue line on the first pregnancy test. And yet, I couldn’t imagine life without all three.
In their song “The Best Time of My Life,” the local band Cloud Cult sums up this paradox in lyrics that will bring tears to your eyes:
“And I never meant to take you for granted
Habit is the enemy of presence
But the days, they all just started getting blurry on me…
You never know if this might be the best time of your life.”
As parents, we’re like the mythological Janus — one face always looking behind, the other ahead. I experience this dual vision every time I look at my daughter. At two and a half, she still has those hints of baby chub, those squishable cheeks, those awestruck eyes that are the hallmark of babyhood. But I can also see a glimmer of who she’ll grow into: the big-girl hair curling past her shoulders, the goofy grin, the teenage sass. Every time we gaze at our children, we’re seeing not only who they are now, but the babies they once were and the grownups they will one day become. It’s like staring time in the face.
And so, like every mom, I’m plagued by that constant inner nag to cherish these moments. Don’t ever wish them away. The future isn’t guaranteed. Even the next moment is no sure thing.
Of course, that’s easier said than done — especially during this “survival” stage of life, when I’m running on the fumes of 2-hour chunks of sleep and my toddler is tantruming because I served him the wrong shape of Play-Doh pancakes. (He wanted stars, not circles. Duh.)
This nagging voice can easily lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety. Am I being present enough in this moment? How about now? How about now?
During my last pregnancy, knowing it would be my last, I labored under a self-imposed pressure to savor every moment. It took a Herculean mental effort to do so. It was a tough pregnancy; I felt nauseous around the clock and was nearly crippled with pelvic pain. After two trimesters of trying to convince myself that every pregnancy should be a magical, precious time, I finally gave myself permission to cut the crap. Pregnancy sucked.
Likewise, once my youngest was born, I was constantly grappling with the temptation to mourn all the “lasts.” The last time I’d cuddle with an hours-old baby (of my own, anyway). The last time I’d lay out those tiny little newborn clothes, astonished that they could still be so baggy on him. The last time I’d experience all those thrilling firsts: first gummy grin, first tooth poking through, first time staggering to his feet. Last, last, last — it goes on and on.
Then I realized: By dwelling on these lasts, I was draining away their joy. I was burdening every moment with a weight it wasn’t meant to bear. Instead of enjoying the milestones, I was grieving for how they were coming (and going) too soon.
Amidst the pressure to be present, we can’t keep dwelling on the fleeting nature of this stage in life. That rumination itself can become a bottomless pit of anxiety, robbing us from the very presence it’s supposed to instill.
As author Valerie Woerner points out in her book “Grumpy Mom Takes a Holiday,” life is a series of seasons, always shifting, and to maintain the right balance means “to look back and fondly remember past seasons without feeling the burden to repeat them.”*
Most people, if given the chance to know how many days they had left to live, how many sunrises and sunsets, would rather not know. Pardon the morbid analogy, but it’s an apt one. I don’t want the memories of my youngest’s childhood to be tinged with needless sorrow. I don’t need to focus on the knowledge that every step forward is a “last” in the lengthy chronicles of motherhood. I’d rather not know.
Clinging to the present is a little like grabbing at a cloud — it turns to mist as soon as we start to clench our fists around it. So my advice is to keep a loose hold. Don’t become so entrenched in the present moment that you’re already grieving its inevitable loss.
Instead, simply accept this stage of life for what it is. Accept that it will go fast. Appreciate the past while looking forward to the future — that vast blank slate that shapes our purpose in the here-and-now. Let go of perfection and the pressure to be perfectly present. Let go of the should’ves and could’ves and if-onlys.
Yes, the days and years will whiz by. You’ll look back and it may all seem a blur. But that’s okay, it’s life. It’s part and parcel of parenthood.
*Woerner, Valerie. Grumpy Mom Takes a Holiday: Say Goodbye to Stressed, Tired, and Anxious, and Say Hello to Renewed Joy in Motherhood (p. 129). Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (2019).