Published on August 17th, 2023 | by Megan Hanlon1
We’re on the downhill side of parenting.
Yesterday, my husband pointed out that we have more years behind us than in front of us when it comes to having our firstborn at home.
At age ten, there are eight years left until he (fingers crossed) launches into the next stage of life—college, a fulfilling job, or some other as-yet-unforeseen step. Eight Christmases, eight birthdays, eight summers. And then suddenly, adulthood.
Social media regularly reminds me how small he once was, in a time I only hazily remember. Plenty of moms will tell you with sorrow in their throats how they miss those baby and toddler and preschooler ages.
I have mixed feelings. One side of my heart aches at how quickly my son is growing up, every day becoming more his own person and less mine.
But the other half of my heart knows I wouldn’t relive those years even on a dare. They were a monumental struggle for me, a mountain I wasn’t sure I would survive climbing. Many times I was lost in the blizzard of fulfilling other peoples’ wants and needs with little regard to my own. Many times I wanted to sink into the snow and disappear for a while.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t love those early years. I thought I’d love them. I tried over and over to love them. But some things you can’t make yourself love, no matter how much you long to.
Downhill is almost but not quite a contronym, a word with contradictory definitions. It can mean requiring little effort, like a walk downhill. It also means becoming undesirable or inferior, as in a much-anticipated experience going downhill.
In effect, “it’s all downhill from here” can be good or bad. Or sometimes both.
My kids were meticulously planned and cried about and longed for. They were the results of years of doctors’ appointments, invasive and expensive treatments, difficult pregnancies, and traumatic deliveries. I got a boy and a girl—exactly what I wanted, and nothing like I thought it would be.
It was—it still is—immeasurably more difficult than I pictured, in ways I never imagined. Until you are in the midst of motherhood, you can’t know the two-sided feeling of wanting to be both nowhere else and anywhere else. Of wanting time to slow down but also speed up.
It’s contradictory but also perfectly, obscenely true.
When I think of those first years with my son, I want to remember the smell of his downy baby head and the weight of his body on my chest when he napped. I want to remember his wonder at the first time he felt rain, and feel my heart overflow with happiness. I want to be knocked over by a tenderness so strong it compels me to tell people I miss it, too, I wish I could go back, too.
I love him fiercely, and yet. And yet.
Right now, we’re slightly more than half-past childhood.
When did we reach that mountain peak, that perfect point where we stand and admire the breathtaking view? When did we stop in awe that the curve of the earth matches the curves of our hearts?
If it happened, I missed it. It must have been a blink, a heartbeat, and then a move onward because somebody asked for snacks.
With each goodnight hug and kiss, I’m running out of time to appreciate these years. I want to fix my regrets, to enjoy every moment after school, the weekends, and during increasingly short summers.
So I’m telling myself, hold on to this moment he wants to tell stories in excruciating detail. Keep in your mind the image of that chipped tooth in all its accidental glory. Remember the feel of your cheek on his small bony shoulder when he insists on holding you (instead of the other way around) during his bedtime lullaby.
But I still struggle to love it. It would be a lie to say I long to do each day all over again, to extend any of these hours.
When I turn out the bedside lamp I rarely think “gosh that was good” and more often think “I made it through.” Through five more loads of laundry, through another meal merely picked at, through complaints of boredom and unfairness and responsibilities. The days skid into one another and make years. Each successive year has been different, but not necessarily easier.
What will the downhill side hold, as the teen years hit us hard and sharp? Which definition will our downhill be?
We can’t know until we get there.