By Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco
Like most parents quarantining with young kids, I’ve been manufacturing reasons to drag my sons outside as often as possible. As part of this effort, I created a daily neighborhood fitness challenge, where we aim to walk a certain number of steps around our neighborhood each day. Yesterday, our travels took us to a location we often visited when the boys were little: our neighborhood kiddie park. Passing through the park with my sons, I could see our younger selves in my mind’s eye: one kid happily riding in the stroller, the other kid excitedly walking beside it, and me, trying in vain to cope with my crushing sense of dread.
To me, nothing epitomized the drudgery and boredom of those early parenting years quite like an afternoon at the park. Highlights included: having to spend 30+ minutes dressing my kid and loading up my stroller with everything we could possibly need if, say, the end of days was to arrive while we were out; hauling my adult-sized butt up child-sized playground equipment as I frantically tried to keep one of my sons from taking a flying leap to the ground; running to my diaper bag every five seconds for a boogie wipe/fruit pouch/sippy cup; furtively checking my phone for some sign of adult life outside of the playscape/hellscape I was in; and making small talk with the other dead-eyed parents who were pushing their kids on adjacent swings.
The worst part about my local park? Its tantalizingly close proximity to my favorite place in the neighborhood: the library. I remember staring longingly at those fortunate adults heading into the library, their arms loaded with books, as I pretended that the handfuls of wood chips my sons just handed me were in fact delicious hamburgers from their “diner.”
And it was tough, seeing those intrepid readers, because they reminded me of the life I used to have before I had young kids. When I could disappear into a library for hours on end, or even just read for five minutes without interruption. It was as if there was an imaginary line dividing my life into two phases: pre-kids and post-kids. And I felt doomed to remain on the post-kids side, at least for the foreseeable future.
But of course, what they say is true: those early years of parenthood go fast, and when your children transition out of the little kid phase, things change dramatically. My kids are nine and six now, and here’s what happened after we returned home from our walk yesterday: my kids rushed out to play football and baseball in the backyard. They did not ask me to accompany them. And I found myself, indoors, with, you guessed it—my book. Yes, I finally have time to read again.
However, I couldn’t concentrate on my reading. Seeing them out there, playing independently and enjoying each other’s company so much, filled me with unspeakable pride. But also unspeakable sadness. Because, much as I hated taking my boys to the kiddie park, I realized that I’ll probably never take them there again. I’ll never again be asked to eat a wood chip sandwich. I’ll never again get to push them in one of those baby swings, checking periodically to make sure the swinging isn’t lulling them to sleep. I’ll never again be so essential to their well-being that I have to follow them wherever they go, even if it means accompanying them on a climber sized for a three-year-old.
Overcome with these feelings of loss, I decided to put my book aside and join my boys in a game of catch. Because what I can now see, having moved past the infant and toddler stages, is that I will have plenty of time in the future to read and browse at the library. What I won’t have is many more years where my boys will actually want me to play sports with them. Sure, I’ll be able to cross that line back over to the library. But there will be other lines I’ll have to cross as well: the line between having children and having teenagers; and later, the line between being a full-time parent and an empty-nester.
I’d love to end this piece by begging moms of little kids to savor every moment, because the kids grow up so quickly, and before you know it you’ll be a nostalgic parent of older kids like I am, and so on and so forth. But the reality is I found many of those early moments, particularly those that occurred at my neighborhood park, to be pretty terrible. If some misty-eyed parent of older kids had walked up to me and encouraged me to savor the moment, I probably would have thrown wood chips in her face.
And of course, if you’re currently a mom of toddlers, you have it even worse than I did. You don’t even have the option of going to the (soul-crushing) park. Sure, I often felt trapped with my toddlers, but at least I was able to go out occasionally for a change of scenery. You are quite literally trapped, with no place to go.
So no, I won’t end with a plea for you moms of littles to cherish your time with your kids. I will instead end with a promise that these times won’t last forever. The pandemic will eventually end, as will your kid’s toddlerhood. You’ll be crossing the line from younger to older kid soon enough (and probably waxing sentimental about those bygone miserable house-bound days).
If, however, you happen to find a moment when you’re not feeling miserable, when your kids are relatively mellow and your weather relatively good, get yourself and your kids outside and soak up the sun—and the moment. Because what’s now clear to me, from my vantage point on the other side of toddlerhood, is that such moments with little ones are rare, and fleeting.
Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Summit, NJ, specializing in maternal stress and anxiety. She still occasionally finds woodchips in her handbags. You can find her at DrCBTMom.com as well as @DrCBTMom on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
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