These holidays I was walking down a long stretch of white beach hand-in-hand with my sons, aged 10 and 11. As we strolled along, we discussed the books they were reading, our plans for the rest of the day, and commented on the people passing us by.
But a sharp pain stabbed my heart.
It was the kind of blissful parenting moment I focussed on imprinting into my memory, savouring their trusting soft paws, their wide-eyed enthusiasm for life and devotion to us as a little family. I looked at their blonde-tousled hair and sun-kissed faces turned towards me with smiles, and I ached.
It hit me that any time now, my sons will realise it’s not “cool” to hang out with their mum, let alone take a stroll holding her hand. They will soon grow up, and our present deep bonds will change and loosen.
We celebrate all the firsts in our children’s lives: when they learnt to sit, crawl, walk and talk, ride a bike without training wheels, or first day at school. We proudly capture these heart-warming moments with photographs and videos, boast about their achievements on Facebook, phone family and compare milestones with other mothers. Yet how many of us know the last time we picked our growing child up out of the bath and snuggle into his damp warm skin? What about the last time your child fell asleep and you carried him to bed? Do you remember the final time your child crawled onto your lap to cuddle? And what was the last bedtime story book you read to your child? Already I have forgotten the last time I rocked my children to sleep in my arms or swooped them up onto my shoulders to dance around the lounge. As I write this, both sons are snuggled on my bed, quietly reading, with their feet touching mine. Every now and again, one of them reads “a funny bite” and we share a laugh.
As I see them grow, I’ve become so keenly aware of how short this beautiful time is, painfully aware that these precious days are numbered, so I try to stay in the present and make every moment count, savouring and cherishing this special bond.
My eldest son loves to chat at night when he is tucked into bed. It’s then he likes to review his day, reveal his deepest fears and secrets, and ask me the millions of questions he seems to store up for asking at bedtime. There are some nights when I’m tired and long to fall onto my bed with a cup of tea and a book. Hey, I don’t want to make out I am some kind of mothering freak who never gets bored or impatient with the slog of parenting. It’s very true that sometimes I am irritated and brush my kids off at bedtime with a cursory chat, a few dismissive kisses and gentle pats. Often, when a child tip-toes into my room for company when he can’t get to sleep, part of me sighs with annoyance. But I also know I don’t want to look back at their childhood and regret not making the very most of them.
I have loved every single stage of their lives so far and I feel deeply sad when faced with so many lasts. But each stage brings more delights, and leaves behind stuff I am glad is over. I miss the cute baby words – inga (water), rara (crackers), uppy (pick me up) and moo (milk). I miss their baby breathe and floppy heads and the way they snuggled into my neck. I miss squishing their chubby legs and blowing raspberries on their fat little tummies.
Each phase seems so fleeting, and the end so final, with no going back.
However, with the passing years, I get to lose the parts of child-rearing I haven’t much enjoyed. I’ve cheerfully waved goodbye to the teething whinge, the endless clinging, sleepless night, nappy changes and toilet training. I’ve welcomed in the freedom and independence that comes once your children become more self-sufficient. I eagerly embrace all the good things that have come with them growing older, like being able to have real conversations about so many topics, long bush hikes where their legs don’t get “sleepy”, that they are starting to cook for me and clean up after themselves, and will sit quietly for ages reading interesting books with ideas we can share with each other.
With each new chapter, my sons become more complex and stimulating, and there is never a period where I haven’t said “wow, they are at such a good age now”, nor have I wished them back a few years. That said, I have yet to experience the teenage years, which apparently is natures way of conditioning parents to eagerly look forward to their children leaving home.
But when my little ones cuddle under my armpits on the couch and I bend my head down to sniff their boyish fragrance of sunshine and fresh grass, I wonder: Will this be the last time? When they crawl into my bed during a thunderstorm and promptly fall asleep, and I watch their sleeping faces, I wonder: Is this the last time they do this? And when they slip their soft little hands into mine when we walk on the beach, I try to concentrate on the feeling in case it is the last time.