There are two kinds of people in this world: The ones who think parenting is difficult, and the ones who lie about it. And under these categories are all kinds of sub-categories, like parents who complain about their kids but never read parenting books or ask for help, or parents who don’t even realize their kids are out of control, or parents who have naturally compliant children and attribute it to their own good parenting skills (please), or parents of small children who give advice like they’ve been raising kids for more than 5 minutes (wait, is that me? She wonders as she writes a parenting article). But the worst sub-category of all, gentle readers, are the parents who rewrite history even as it is being written.
I call this “momnesia,” the disease that erodes reality and gives way to statements like “My kids were great at restaurants,” and “My babies always slept through the night, have you ever tried swaddling?” and “My teenagers loved listening to me talk. Loved it.”
I used to roll my eyes at these moms and dads who appeared to live in a universe parallel to me and my actual human children. But here’s the bad news: I think I’ve contracted the disease.
My youngest child is 3 years old and I swear to you, I have no idea when she started talking in full sentences. I don’t know how my son started staying in his own bed after we took him out of the crib. I have no idea if my oldest daughter always cleaned up the toys so well or if I taught her at some point (and apparently forgot to teach her brother). Literally- no idea.
The problem is not in the forgetting, though. This is to be expected. Our brains cannot possibly hold all of these details. The problem is in the retelling, the way that we tend to shame each other by rewriting details to make ourselves more capable and intentional via our version of the past.
What is this mechanism in play which glosses our memories and removes the grit and dig of raising small children? It’s not that I don’t remember it being exhausting, it’s that I couldn’t possibly recall the particulars of the hundreds of daily decisions and difficulties of keeping babies alive and well. Our life together becomes a conglomerate of small memories held together as a broader narrative, one in which people are defined by generalizations (She never slept, he was so stubborn) and small moments are magnified to explain why we felt a certain way during a certain period of time (infamous injuries, successes, arguments, intense likes and dislikes). Why do we do this? Why can’t I remember Audrey’s first tooth, despite the all-encompassing nature of the experience? I see pictures of my darling son when he was a toddler, with his tan skin and dark brown eyes and think, “I used to get mad at that perfect person every single day. How? Why? What kind of a monster can’t stand being around a beautiful, wonderful child?”
But I refuse to dismiss that version of myself (monster or no) for the sake of shinier memories. I love that girl, the one who thought a two year old was trying to ruin her life. She had not yet seen the other side of the road, not yet sensed the fleeting nature of infancy and toddlerhood, how those years would run through her hands like fresh water that she would never taste again. But also, the water was cold and at times felt like a drowning.
I’m not saying all this to defend myself and make excuses for what I will inevitably forget about parenting small children; I’m saying it to remind myself not to dismiss the experience of other parents and people I encounter. I say it to remind myself how it feels when people tell me that my kids get sick all the time and theirs never did (lies. I knew their kids and their snotty noses). I say it to remind myself how it feels when other parents shrug their shoulders about tantrums and can’t remember their kids ever throwing fits “like that”. I refuse to buy into the convenience of a white-washed memory palace in which I am the magnified hero and problems were the dragon I slayed. If I want to be a safe place for the world around me then I need to allow room for my past and present failings and struggles, not as a mark of my martyrdom or heroics, but as an honest representation of myself. Because without honesty, without humility, who are we but shadows of ourselves?
I want to be kind with how I keep my memories: Kind to myself, to my children, and to anyone who asks to share life with me. Like a tour around my house, I don’t have to open every closet and drawer, but I won’t be so disingenuous as to only show them the front room where I just vacuumed. I don’t want to use shined up memories as a shield or a weapon. So if that means you get to hear about the time I forgot to buckle the infant’s seatbelt straps, or you find out what my marriage actually looks like when there are three crying kids at bedtime, or maybe I tell you how I feel after I yell at my kids and then cry for the shame of it; I will be kind to us both. I will offer honesty with humility, but also forgiveness to myself and grace to you, so you can give yourself the same. If, someday, you ask me what it was like when I was raising small children, I won’t lie. I’ll say, it was one million small and difficult decisions that I will never remember for three human beings whose story never belonged to me in the first place. But, and, it was one million acts of love that told a story we’ll never forget.