Revising Recollections of Early Childhood

I liked this article today by Mary Elizabeth Williams "I loved being the mom of young kids, but I'm not sad they're growing up." 

Tons of well-meaning neighbors and passers-by give and gave me the same advice she quotes: “Enjoy it now. It goes by so fast.” The early childhood years, say zero through five, actually didn't go by fast at all for me with Wally. I felt every grueling and wonderful and wonder-filled minute. 

Petra is still really in early childhood (although sometimes I forget that; she seems so much older). I'm still the person scrambling with stained shirts, overwhelmed with thrown-off nap-times and spilled milk and potential breakdowns at family get togethers while most of the other parents have been set-loose by kids (like Wally) who dart nearby just to grab some pretzels and then disappear to join the other kids again. I do keep trying to remind myself--enjoy this time! Enjoy the days when she clings to you, begs to sit next to you, says, "You're my best friend Mama" over and over. I know I'll look back with nostalgia when I'm not even allowed in her room, when she grabs two bites of dinner and runs out the door to meet friends. Still, it helps to hear from this mom of kids who are growing up that it really is tough to toddler-chase all day and that there are plenty of great things about taking care of older children. 

Given our culture's hyper-focus on birth and parenting now (maybe a much-over due interest, but a bit obsessive now, nonetheless), it feels like parents of young children have, despite the tranquilized look of the sleep-tortured, some special VIP access, some insider claim, not just to the toughest parenting job but to some other, ineffable power. Their little ones rule. They are in charge, nominally, of the true rulers. Their stained shirts, ripped pants, the bags under their eyes, confirm this. They've been anointed. 

Now I'm remembering the Romantic poets, and their belief that babies did have some kind of spiritual power, a closer connection to the supernatural world. And I suppose, why wouldn't they? Uncorrupted. Brand new. Just arriving here from...

Yes, here it is. Wordsworth, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy

We get mixed messages--tell that baby to grow up! Why isn't he/she speaking yet? Over picking eating yet? Enrolled in music master classes yet! But we're also constantly told to enjoy this magical time. 

Parents with young, clingy, messy, demanding kids stare at the parents stretched out on beach chairs sipping lemonade with envy. Parents whose children are growing up or grown look with envy at the family with the stroller and the ice-cream covered toddler. Williams' article is a reminder to be realistic about the drudgery and difficulty of the early years. Not to idealize it looking back. 

Yet her article can be summed up in a single sentence, as it is in the title. These are the articles people seem to want. One-point-articles. A point you get fully in the headline. Scroll-able articles. This is what the masses have always wanted. And here I don't mean to separate myself from the masses; far from it. I clicked on the damn article, and praised it. Meanwhile I'm spinning my wheels with Wordsworth trying to summarize his point about how we can't get back the "splendour in the grass" but how we can take the memory with us. So why am I resisting the complexity of the grass-is-always-greener parenting dynamic, but embracing complexity elsewhere?  

Maybe I am partly bothered by the refusal to admit to any nostalgia. To any regret for not seeing the radiance of those exhausting moments more clearly. Maybe I was drawn to the article precisely because something about it felt unfinished or because I wanted to accept the closed and stable lesson: enjoy the moment you're in, but could not.

Maybe it would be okay for Williams to give us a reality check about the things that are better in her life now, as she does, but for her also to pause for a moment on "the glory and the freshness of a dream" that is now gone. I don't want to be reductively returning us to Wordsworth's vision. His words beg re-examination as well. One could, just for a start, question his dedication to nature, and posit, as many have done, that his metaphors served the project of empire.

A desire to ask questions, to push and search and wonder, led me straight to the academy. Led me, four years ago, while Wally napped upstairs at my parents' house in Massachusetts, to sit on the porch and commit to memory words like "cicatrix" before I brought him out to the lake in the afternoon, so that November, pregnant with Petra, I could take the GREs. So that the following January, right about to enter a new radiant and exhausting realm, I wrote my statement of intent about why I wanted to return to study questions with very distant answers. Answers I would probably never reach. 

Yet I found some of the most important questions--the ones about how we live--to be almost entirely missing from that realm. 

I want to pose questions about how we live, and splash about in deep, murky waters, positing answers, then pushing and revising, and reconsidering them. Accepting challenges and complications; J. Alfred Prufrocks 100 visions and revisions.

At the same time maybe I'm jealous of the Mary Elizabeth Williamses of the world, the ones, if this article is any indication, with fixed and stable answers they seem satisfied by. The ones who now take long, hot showers by themselves, without a second thought. 

Maybe part of me wonders--really, really? Okay most days, fine. But are you never going to fall down on your knees in the last dying light of August sobbing as you carry a now cracked and empty dollhouse out to the donation pile in the garage, the dollhouse your girls once adored and bent over for hours? Are you really never going to hear the ghostlike, prayerful, gentle voices they used to move the doll family around from room to room?

Are you trying to save yourself the discomfort of uncertainty and complication? Is this brief, encouraging article another balm in the long list of "It's okay" platitudes we seemingly need to subsist, to counteract horrifying images of Syria and Louisiana? Part of the dull, it's okay, numb grayness Christina Crook claims, in The Joy of Missing Out, we increasingly choose over the experience of true sadness or true joy?

I don't know if I want Williams to admit to a pang every now, to admit to catching herself with the sadness and wistfulness of knowing that "nothing can bring back the hour." Or if it's just that I want to be able to write and think myself with such clarity and stability. To trade myself in the currency of our culture. One I feel I've lost almost entirely, become untethered from, grown distant and distal from, been disavowed and disappeared and divested of, discounted from, since leaving Facebook with its easy answers and its snapshot lives and its utopian visions, nearly four and a half years ago. 


  1. I know I like reading your blog posts much more than the simple-answer, one-point articles :-)

    Staying away from FB is, I should think, a powerful force for good. I hope you can keep enjoying that liberty.

  2. Thanks Gretchen. I really appreciate this!

  3. This post is so rich and complex and perfect. Your questions are resonating deeply- how easy it is to fall for and into the soundbites, to linger in simplicity instead of wallowing in the dark and murky waters of reality. Thank you for this.

  4. Thank you Amie. I credited you on an earlier/recent blog for giving me confidence in the beauty and purpose of continued questioning...oh yes, I see you read that one too. I think the post came across as a critique of the soundbites and easy summaries, but there is a part of me pulled there, too, wondering if that is th way to participate in the larger conversation.

  5. First, the music and truth of this exquisite passage that stole my heart: "But are you never going to fall down on your knees in the last dying light of August sobbing as you carry a now cracked and empty dollhouse out to the donation pile in the garage, the dollhouse your girls once adored and bent over for hours? Are you really never going to hear the ghostlike, prayerful, gentle voices they used to use to move the doll family around from room to room?"

    I am living inside this dollhouse time right now--she has a small, toddler-sized one--and dreaming of the big dollhouse I want to surprise her with for Christmas this year. There are so many aspects of early childhood I wish I could keep forever, and other aspects, like tantrums and sleep-deprivation, that I will not miss. I just finished an essay about the slow-fast way it unfolds (although I'm afraid I only skated along the surface of these feelings/experiences). For me, nostalgia is as inevitable as the relief I feel as we move into each new phase--and here I am, still very much in the young years. In fact, I think I experience pre-nostalgia as time picks up speed. What once felt endless is now gone. Perhaps this is also the advantage of parenting at midlife; by now we are attuned to the swift passage of time. Still, there is the frequent echo from others, "Enjoy it, it goes so fast." Yet, I think true enjoyment comes when we let go of that awareness and just exist inside the moment. But can we ever really let go of that awareness?

    I agree, the tidy, one-point articles are all the rage. Our culture resists complexity and questions, instead favoring the efficiency of easy answers, the clickable, the scrollable. So often I find myself feeling two (or more) ways about something, and that is what interests me most: opposing truths. You illustrate it so well in this post and allow us to sit with the questions.

  6. Sarah, thank you. I love that way of describing it, "the dollhouse time." That is perfect. Can't wait to read your essay about the slow-fast way it unfolds. (I too feel I'm so often just skating along the surface of these experiences). I am totally pre-nostalgic, and often, as my college boyfriend put it, "nostalgic in the moment." That is often more difficult than the post-nostalgia, (like the sadness before moving, in the final days in a certain place), which should be comforting I guess. (Writing this with Petra here dangling a bracelet around her wrist she wants me to attach, insisting it fits.) Such a good point about true enjoyment happening when we let go of that awareness. I think you're right, being present means just that, being present.

    There is such a wonderful book about dollhouses I found in a nearby local bookstore, 192 Books. It's called This is My Dollhouse and it's by Giselle Potter. It advocates for a homemade dollhouse, but I have to say I do love the hand-me down store-bought one my nieces gave Petra. (And as a child I always longed for one. I played happily for hours/days/weeks/years with the gorgeous, store-bought one my best friend Heather had.)

    So how to enter the dialogue in the age of the clickable, scrollable, summarizable, forgettable...that's one of the questions to sit with, I guess.

    Thank you for all your wonderful thoughts here.

  7. Thank you for always having the perfect book recommendation! I was able to look through the first few pages of This Is My Dollhouse on the Penguin Random House site--it's wonderful! I will likely have to order it. Our local independent bookstore closed about a year ago...

  8. Thanks for sharing !!! I appreciate your article.


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