A little over 19 years ago, barely out of my teens I became a father for the first time. Through some twists of fate, a few significant events and a couple of key-decisions (mostly well-meant, if misguided) I found myself on a path that would come to define and shape my life.
Parenthood has been responsible for many of the highest-highs in my life to-date. It has also thrown up some of the most heart-wrenching and personally-stretching experiences. It has made situations that would otherwise have been simple to resolve, instead complex and as I’ve honoured the obligation to put the needs and wants of my kids ahead of my own. At times, the guilt arising from mistakes I’ve made and actions I’ve taken has been magnified one-hundred-fold through the impacts it has had upon them; parting from their mother when they were aged seven and three is the biggest example of this.
For each of the adversities, there have been many more joyful and loving experiences. Being a father to two daughters (and latterly step-father to a younger boy and a girl) has continued to be the single-most enriching aspect to my life, in many diverse and varied ways. My kids are a blessing to me, through and through.
I recall when my girls were babies and then toddlers, a phase when I felt most adept as a parent. I could handle the sleepless nights, and the demands of nurturing a new-born seemed well-suited to my own brand of methodical, process-driven parenting. The requirements that each passing phase brought with it, the teething, the terrible-twos and so-on each seemed to be surmountable with a little patience and the passing of time; at least, that’s how I remember it. As they’ve grown older, the tests have become harder to manage, and vastly more complex to navigate and help them through.
We’ve co-parented the girls on an equal and joint basis since their mother and I divorced, from then to now; the eldest has gone off to University in Europe and the youngest has just past the age of 15. During recent years life has presented far greater and more complex challenges than I was ever prepared for. I say that in full and grateful acknowledgment that my daughters are well-behaved, high-achievers, loving, responsible and with well-honed senses of humour and honesty. I know that the tests we could have faced would have been vastly more challenging had drugs, alcohol, behavioural issues and teenage-pregnancy featured as it has for many of my kids’ peers. For the absence of these, I’m also grateful.
Throughout, we’ve weathered the storm and dealt with the occasional obstacles. As father and daughters we’ve grown up together and now enjoy a closer bond that I believe we might have had if their mother and I had remained married. All things considered, things seem rosy now.
What I’m compelled to write-down and explore in this piece is the feelings that I’ve experienced of late, regarding the passing of my time as a parent and as I see my kids becoming adults. I frequently reminisce about the past, particularly as I look at pictures of me with them as babies and as young kids. Certainly this prompts the swollen-hearted pride and love that instinctively arises when I see pictures of them from years gone-by. Accompanying that are powerful waves of sadness and of loss; that is what I’ve struggled with most recently and what I’ve been trying to make sense of.
As I become more attuned to the passing of time, I try and live more consciously and make the most of each and every moment. At 43 years of age I’ve no reason to suspect that I’m any more than half way through my tenure on this earth. As much of a blessing as it is to recognise the power of now in taking joy from the current moment, a side-effect seems to be that I’m reminded of all the moments in the past that are lost forever. Did I extract and enjoy each of those moments as much as I could? The sadness I feel at times when I reminisce leads me to suspect not.
At the most simplistic level, I love them as young-adults but I miss that I’ll never again know them as young kids.
I miss the time when they’d instinctively raise their arms to me in hope and expectation that I’d pick them up. Cuddles and hugs flowed from them naturally, and I’d hold their occasionally sticky hands in mine as we walked from A to B. Nowadays, they’re tactile and affectionate but I’m more likely to receive an exaggerated air-kiss or hug, lest I mess up their carefully prepared hair or make-up.
I feel sad that I’ll never again experience the smell of their warm and slightly clammy skin and soft but tangled baby-hair beneath my chin as they cling to my chest after awaking from a nap, still dozy and holding on to me for safety, comfort and warmth. I’ll never have that soul-enriching feeling of them laying asleep on top of me, completely relaxed, safe and secure to the point where they can sleep easily and peacefully atop me and I can doze off too in a reverie of peace, calm and love.
I feel sad as I look back on the simpler times when my interactions with them were relatively one-dimensional and their needs easily met. The simple provision of food, treats, kindness, attention or love were usually all that was required. The participation in some repetitive and non-sensical game of make-believe or joining them to watch a favourite cartoon or movie was all it took to earn my place at the side of my little buddies. Nowadays, dealing with young-women rather than young-kids, our interactions are inherently more complex and delicately nuanced. Their needs are shaped by factors both intrinsic and extrinsic that at times mystify and demoralise me. At times, they want space and freedom rather than company and support and I find this enormously hard to interpret and respond to. I want to be there for them as they seek happiness and fulfilment in their daily-lives in this complex world, but that in itself seems more fraught with difficulty than I could ever have conceived. I’m ready for the challenge, but somehow it felt like I could do a better job of being their Dad and meeting their needs back then, than I am able to now. For that, I feel disappointed in myself.
I feel sadness when looking back on pictures of us from periods when life was on a tougher trajectory, such as when their Mum and I were separating, living apart and trying to find our feet as a divorced family. Then there were other unpleasant periods as other ill-fated and poorly chosen relationships came and went in mine and their Mum’s life. I wonder how the kids really feel about those periods, if they even recall details of the sad times? I fear for how much they may have swallowed down and kept inside for the benefit of me and their Mum, quashing their true feelings in the name of our happiness.
In the photos from periods even when life was happier and easier, I wonder what was going on in the little minds behind those smiles. I worry that I could have done better by them, and yearn to be able to go back and to try and raise them over again, kidding myself that I’m somehow better equipped and better prepared than when I was younger.
“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory”
I feel sad as I contemplate the world today, and fear that I’ve not raised them as well as I might have. Have I imparted the essential knowledge and skills that will help them thrive today and in the future? As I look at pictures from the past I see the carefree kids whose biggest loves aside from their family were Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. They were content to exist in a world where they felt safe, secure and loved, albeit one where Mum and Dad weren’t together. They still knew they had two parents who were each actively involved in their lives, and who each loved them dearly. That seemed to imbue them with contentedness and spirits of individuality, quirkiness and self-confidence. I’d hate to see that extinguished or dampened by factors that I see as external threats in the world today. I yearn for a time when that spirit was all they needed to get by, not resilience to the artificial constructs and superficial influences of the modern era.
I know that the sadness I feel as I look at those pictures of my kids in the past comes from a selfish place. It’s about feeling the loss of times, and the associated feelings that rose-tinted reminiscences have ensured seem somehow better and more fulfilling as I look back upon them. Nostalgia has the power to do that. I remind myself that just as I look back fondly on the era when they were barely at school, so too I will look back on the days I’m living now, and those beyond when they’re adults making their own way in the world.
I cannot help the twinge of sadness I feel as I look back on something that can never be recaptured, but that I should wish to, speaks to those times at least being happy enough that I’d be pleased to be back there again. Certainly, in the fullness of time and all things being equal, I may be blessed with grand-kids (in the long and distant future, in case either of them ever reads this) and that will of course hopefully enable similar memories and feelings to be rekindled with another child (or kids) from within my family-line.
A further paradox is that for all the time I spend lost in the past, that is time when I’m not grounded in the present. To continue in this way carries the risk of constantly being behind in the harvesting of true joy and fulfilment from the here and now. That’s too risky a prospect to entertain.
The lesson I take from this I suppose, is that no matter how difficult the here and now can seem at times, and no matter how fleeting the moments of joy can seem in periods that are otherwise mundane or even testing, I must cherish each of them. Someday soon, they will be gone and in the past as well.
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