They always tell you that your first child is a science experiment. To some extent, they’re right. You’re trying things out, gathering the evidence, and deciding what works (or, all too often, what doesn’t). However, I feel that the analogy is imperfect. Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate, devoid of bias and not invested in any particular outcome. And let me tell you, as a parent, I am very much the opposite of dispassionate. I would say that parenting a first child is more like learning to cook by creating a meal for an elaborate dinner party – you feel very much out of your depth, but you want it to be good, so you’re giving it your all and just hoping it works itself out.
On the cold, clear February morning eight years ago when I woke up to find that my water had broken six weeks early, I had no idea what I was in for. I didn’t yet understand the combination of fierce mother-love, loss of independence, self-deprivation, utter confusion and divine transcendence that comes with being a parent. Like most first-time expectant parents, I was focused primarily on labour and delivery. In fairness, birth is sort of a big deal. But in retrospect, it was so very short and self-contained. When I think about my parenting journey, it’s everything that came after Hannah shot out of me at full speed, skidding across the delivery table, that really matters. It’s eight years’ worth of moments, big and small, that I’ve spent with my daughter that define our relationship today.
If I draw on my dinner party analogy, eight years in I’m still in the thick of cooking. I can see that some of the dishes have worked out well, while others were maybe a mistake. I don’t yet know how it will turn out in the end. But even so, it’s apparent to me that on the whole, it’s pretty freaking amazing. And, what’s more, with each day that passes I have a more competent and able assistant. She is defining what we’re doing, and what the end result will be. She is blowing me away with her creativity, her compassion, and her sense of humour. As we cook together, she changes me, and makes me better.
Each of the little moments of parenting are complete in and of themselves. They’re like little vignettes or short stories, each distinct from the other. And so, when I think back on the past eight years, I have a hard time teasing out the narrative. I struggle to connect the newborn baby who spent her first days in the NICU with the chubby-legged toddler who insisted on making her own fashion choices very early on. The baby I carried inside me seems like a totally different being from the four-year-old who passionately embraced drawing, and they both seem very different from the seven-year-old who patiently read her little brother his favourite stories.
And yet, sometimes, I see the reflections of those other moments in the person my daughter is today. When she sleeps, her face looks so much younger, and I can see her baby-self. When she curls up in my lap, if I ignore the gangly arms and legs of childhood, I can feel the same feeling I used to feel when she was so much younger and she came to me in search of solace. There are reminders of how she came to be the child she is today, but they are dim, and they are fleeting. This is why parents complain that time passes too quickly – because we can never fully re-capture those moments after they have passed.
Today I will bake and ice a birthday cake. I will give gifts and sing “Happy Birthday” to my daughter. I will take Hannah to school and swimming lessons, but I won’t insist that she practice her spelling because it is her birthday, after all. I will try to remember what the journey has been like, and how she was on her other birthdays. But mostly, I will celebrate the person my daughter is today, on her eighth birthday. Because I don’t want to miss out on this moment, in my vain attempt to re-capture the past.