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Why You Should Think Before Telling Mothers ‘They’re Only Little Once’

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As soon as I became a mother, I began to hear the phrase. They’re only little once. Parents and those without children all seemed to agree: most of the sacrifices mothers make can be explained away by the crushing force of time, which threatens to take our young children before we’re ready, or before we’ve done enough to ensure their success.

When my first child was a toddler and I could not afford daycare, I tried embracing the phrase. I found a job at an in-home childcare center where I could care for my daughter and work at the same time. Childcare was not my chosen profession, but I knew many mothers who had altered their careers and personal lives entirely so that they could spend more time with their children. When I spoke of my strange and sudden life shift to other mothers and fretted about how long this upheaval might go on, they called up that familiar retort.

Things were not quite how I or they wanted them. We had lost ourselves, given up professional ambitions, friends, community, the pursuit of other forms of fulfillment, everything that gave us an identity and a personality. We were confused and overtaxed, unmoored, a little unhinged. But it would pass, we nodded to each other. They’re only little once.

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In part this line of thinking was an effort to cut each other some slack. We brought each other back from the brink of disappointment, sadness, depression, and fury. And we believed that our children were better off when we gave up everything to spend more time with them.

Read More: The Conversation That Changed How I Thought About Early Motherhood

But the effect of this thinking was more guilt, less release. It was hard to parent children who were young without affordable childcare, sufficient paid leave, comprehensive postpartum care, or any reentry programs to help me get back to work. I felt disconnected from many moments, particularly as I contemplated who I had become and why I didn’t find more joy in caring for children all day, but I understood that it was still crucial that I cherish every moment. I didn’t yet see the outlines of the misogynistic belief that women’s unhappiness was an inevitable side effect of parenthood, much less the limits of how we think about time well spent with children.

In 1965, John Bowlby, sometimes referred to as the father of attachment theory, listed a mother who worked full time alongside the death or imprisonment of a parent, war, and famine, as part of his broader thesis on “maternal deprivation.” Since then, ideas about the supposed “peak experience” of parenting children under 4 have given new life to such claims. Conservative figure Jordan Peterson, for instance, has warned that parents “miss” this time at their “peril” and can’t “get back” precious time lost with young kids. His words have made the rounds on social media, softened by nostalgic images of young kids and their parents. But our cultural overemphasis on optimizing this period primarily implicates women, who are more likely to feel the pressure to reorient their personal and professional lives around the creation of “core memories.” Peterson himself acknowledges that women may experience career setbacks trying to make the most of these years, and that such setbacks contribute to the gender pay gap, but, he says, “no one knows what to do” about that.

Read More: Motherhood Is Hard to Get Wrong. Why Do So Many Moms Feel So Bad About Themselves?

At its best, the phrase “they're only little once” urges parents to cherish small moments with their children. At its worst, however, the phrase bullies new mothers into martyring themselves in service of their children’s development, often by sacrificing their own autonomy, sense of self, and connections to a wider community outside the home.

I have since returned not just to my career ambitions, but to other forms of work and connection. At first, I felt pangs of sadness about what I might be missing when I was away from my children. But over time, I came to see that these worries prevented me from recognizing and appreciating the other relationships my kids had built–with daycare teachers, with extended relatives, with other children in our growing network of care.

The years we spend with our children when they are young are indeed fast and fleeting, and parenthood often feels like a state of mourning. We reckon with a certain loss of closeness with our children that is unavoidable and healthy, and the longing that sometimes comes with our own experiences of aging. But there is much more grief to be found in keeping to ourselves, in a world that so often wants us separate and divided.

The way we understand time well spent with kids also overlooks the fact that a mother’s time matters too. What me, after all, was always there in the early years with my children when they were so young? Certainly a less whole version of the person I am today. However present I may have been in the room, I was not me, but some image of what a mother should be. This is yet another great potential loss for children, and more important, for women, who cannot “get back” the years so many lose to early parenthood.

I no longer apply a lens of scarcity to my time with my children, nor do I hoard time with them. We have so many years, and they have so much to extend to others beyond me, and beyond our home. The unavoidable passage of time still weighs on me as I enter midlife, and as I watch my children age, too, coming into other versions of themselves. I long for pudgy baby legs and lost turns of phrase as much as any parent. But now, I also find pleasure in my evolving relationships with my kids. They are less me, more them, every day, an utter delight to witness, as I become less mother, more myself.

Rather than cherish every moment, I now cherish the forward movement of time—my children making friends, finding more adults they can trust, picking up slang at school, feeling new emotions, bringing home lessons about how to live among others. My own time spent away from them is richer and fuller too. We are bending toward the wider world, and toward a future that is a bit freer than the present moment.

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