Why We Long for the Most Difficult Days of Parenthood
Older parents are always telling parents of young children to cherish every second; it will be gone in a flash. But it’s very difficult advice to follow in the thick of it.
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Most trips to the grocery store are not particularly memorable, but there’s one I’ll never forget. It was the spring of 2019, and my then-four-month-old was in a car seat nestled into the shopping cart while her sister squirmed in the built-in seat. I was going about my usual business as a newly minted stay-at-home mom of two under 2—desperately cramming my to-do list into the brief and unpredictable windows between nursing sessions, diaper changes, and temper tantrums—when an older woman cut into my bleary-eyed view. “Enjoy it,” she told me. I nodded, smiled, and turned away to reach for something on a shelf, and she doubled down: “I’m serious, enjoy it. It goes so fast.”
This is something parents of young children hear ad nauseam and in a variety of ways: Don’t blink; cherish every second; it will be gone in a flash. It’s simple-enough advice—so simple that it hardly seems worth saying at all. Yet people feel compelled to give it, perhaps because it’s very difficult advice to follow.
I’ll stop to make the usual caveats: I love my daughters. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But there’s no question that the first few years of their lives have been the hardest of mine. Some stretches, particularly at the height of the pandemic, were nothing short of grueling. Things have gotten more manageable since, but I’ve never turned down an opportunity to get away from my kids for a couple of hours. I rejoiced when my 3-year-old started preschool this fall. I wouldn’t say I’m cherishing every second.
It is a small comfort that I am not alone in struggling to relish this phase of parenthood. Research on parenting and happiness is mixed, but much of it suggests that child-rearing isn’t particularly enjoyable. In the United States (and in some but not all other advanced industrialized nations), becoming a parent takes a toll on well-being, which doesn’t recover until the kids leave the house. Nevertheless, if my elders are any indication, many people come to recall the chaotic early years of parenting very fondly. There is even some data to back this up: In a study published last year, researchers asked people over the age of 50 in several European countries to retrospectively assess when they were happiest. Respondents consistently pointed to their early 30s—a finding partially explained, for those who had kids, by the fact that those years lined up with when their kids were born.
It’s hard to know what to make of the knowledge that in time, I’ll pine for these days I often find myself laboring through. By some accounts, the me of the future will simply misremember what life is like right now. The sociologist Daniel Gilbert once likened a day spent caring for a 3-year-old to a baseball game that remains scoreless until the bottom of the ninth. Fans remember the thrilling moments of the game-winning home run and not much else. According to that theory, I’ll forget the screeching and the mess of getting my 3-year-old out the door in the morning, and remember only the delight that passes across her face when we first make eye contact at school pickup.
But conversations with parents of children who have flown the nest suggest it’s more complicated than that. Most of those I consulted had not forgotten the crushing difficulty of that era. Yet they found themselves longing for it anyway.
Alison Woods, a children’s-book author and mother of three, told me that when her kids were small, she once told her own mother that she wished she could run away. Christine Hohlbaum, an author and a mother of two, has spent much of her writing career calling attention to the chaos and strain of caring for small children. Still, they and other parents I spoke with admitted that as their roles and relationships with their kids evolved over time, they came to view those early years in a new light.
For one thing, as parenting gets easier in some ways, it gets harder in others. The earliest years of parenting are most demanding of time and energy, most likely to cause “role overload,” and most disruptive to one’s sleep, work, and marriage. Yet they are not necessarily the worst for well-being. According to some research, parental satisfaction and fulfillment declines, and stress rises slightly, as children age into school and then adolescence. This makes some sense: Although the duties of caring for a small child who can do nothing for himself are all-encompassing and relentless, they are also fairly straightforward. But as children age, their problems become more complex. “Instead of ‘I have a boo-boo; I need a kiss,’ you’re looking at ‘I’m not sure what I want to do with my life’ and ‘My crush doesn’t love me back,’” Vered DeLeeuw, a food blogger with two grown daughters, told me. And while a parent’s responsibility to solve their children’s problems diminishes as those kids approach adulthood, the desire to do so never does; the pressure of tending to their children’s every need is supplanted by the helplessness of being unable to do so. “All you can do is give advice when they ask for it, then step aside and let them deal with life’s challenges,” DeLeeuw said. That means watching your kids make mistakes and accepting that there is suffering in this world from which we are unable to shield them.
Other parents note that the nature of the relationship between parent and child changes over time in ways that are hard to stomach. One of the reasons parenting gradually gets less demanding is that parents become less central to a child’s happiness. School and friends, and eventually partners and work, take precedence, and parents shift into the child’s periphery. Although the utter physical dependency of a small child on their parents can be overwhelming, it comes with an intimacy that is impossible to preserve as the child matures. “I have a great relationship with my daughter now,” Marie Graham, a mother of one from Salford, England, who runs a wellness company, told me. “But the intensity of the relationship you have with your young child, you’re never going to re-create.” Regardless of how close my daughter and I remain, there will come a time when she no longer seeks comfort by crawling into my lap. Whatever liberation comes with that transition will be bittersweet.
All of this is difficult to appreciate as it happens, for various reasons. Beyond the particular financial and logistical strains of raising kids in modern industrialized economies, early parenting is physically uncomfortable, Hohlbaum pointed out. It’s hard to admire the curl taking shape in a child’s hair when you haven’t had a full night’s rest in months and are covered in another human’s bodily fluids. Likewise, the joys of parenthood can be overshadowed by the fear of screwing it up. “We’re really trying not to make any life-defining mistakes,” Woods said. Graham suspects that the singularity of the bond between a parent and a young child gets lost in the overwhelm and monotony of living it every moment of every day.
Only with distance from the minute-to-minute anxieties of caring for a small child does its sweeping beauty come into full view. But this isn’t so much a shortcoming of youth as it is a gift of age. The experiences that follow early parenthood enrich our understanding of it, allowing us to ponder it anew. Hindsight allows us to put suffering into context and recognize the purpose it served in our lives. Hohlbaum likened it to laying bricks in a road: Only after we find out where the path leads are we able to see the purpose each brick served in getting us there. People with grown children have a deeper appreciation for the initial years of parenthood, because they are observing it from a perspective that only time can grant.
There’s no sense in trying to cherish every moment of early parenting as it happens, Graham told me. Too much is going on, and much of it isn’t enjoyable. But keep an eye out for the precious moments amid the tumult and chaos, she said. Do what you can to imprint them in your memory—write them down, or share them with friends. Collect them like gems, so that when your arms are finally free and your eyes are a little clearer, you can turn them over in your hand.