Time is a funny old thing. The ticking hands of the clock fool us into thinking it’s a constant, moving at the same speed regardless of what’s going on, but time is actually surprisingly malleable. It passes slower the further you get from a source of gravity, so skiiers on a mountain are measurably ageing less rapidly than sunbathers on a beach. Likewise, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, so the astronauts on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than if they’d stayed at home.
Of course, we’re talking nanoseconds here – nothing that humans could notice.
Subjectively, however, time passes at vastly different speeds, depending on our mood, level of attention, hormones and the amount of processing our brain has to do. Ten minutes in the company of a bore can feel like hours; hours in the company of your lover can feel like minutes. The car about to crash into you seems to take forever to hit, but sit down for an exam and half the time is gone before you’ve finished writing your name.
And the larger scale passage of time can be a paradox, being both squashed and at the same time incredibly stretched – especially when you have kids.
‘Can you believe she’s almost four?’ they say. ‘I can’t believe she’s starting school in September.’
On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday she was born; like yesterday we took her home from hospital; yesterday she took her first steps and said her first words. But at the same time, it’s been one hell of a long four years, the longest of my life. And thinking back to before she was born – back when our lives weren’t dominated by children – seems like peering into the distant past. I read about it in history books and it isn’t me.
And another irregularity of time is when you get yourself stuck in a rut – when the days fly by without anything to mark their passing, but they go by So. Freaking. Slow.
It’s a trap I’ve fallen into over the past few weeks. I know we’re supposed to pay attention to every single moment, to enjoy our kids every second of every day because it goes so fast and they’ll never be this age again, but damn – at the moment I’m just running down the clock.
The days have become so slow, so repetitive, and I’m so freaking bored, all I’m doing is waiting for their bedtime, counting down the hours until I can be me again. But as soon as they’re in bed, I’m too tired to do anything, so I too go to bed. And that’s how I’m living. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Park, soft play, beach. Painting, play-do, bath. Every day, the same, the same. Life has been stripped of its fullness.
Time drags, but suddenly it’s the end of week and I’ve done nothing. And I just feel empty, this horrible sense of ennui, this existential nothingness.
Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.
So today, to adjust my relationship with time, I have filled my day with fullness. I’ve driven through yellow fields of rape; explored old buildings cloaked in wisteria; and tonight I’m hunting for ghosts in the ruins of an old prison. Because life isn’t about counting the hours, it’s about making the hours count.
I must have a different concept of time to other people. ‘Can you believe she’s almost sixteen weeks old already?’ they say, as if it’s magically just happened on its own.
Yes, I can well believe it. I was there every day of the previous fifteen weeks.
A variation on this theme is, ‘I bet it feels like just yesterday she was born.’
Nope, it feels like she she was born 111 days ago. 111 long, hard, tiring but ultimately rewarding days. It feels like it was years ago, and I can barely remember my life before Izzie was born – it’s a grey blur where I had free time and sleep, like in a fairy tale.
Another old chestnut is, ‘Before you know it she’ll be eighteen and moving out.’
I’m not sure how she’ll be eighteen ‘before I know it’. I can’t imagine the upcoming hell of teething, toddling, talking and terrorising are going to slip by unnoticed. Nor can we get through eighteen birthdays, eighteen Christmasses, a million holidays, school trips, sports days, parent-teacher evenings, pimples, boyfriends and ‘the talk’ without being made aware, every step of the way, of the passage of time.
My whole life, time hasn’t passed for me as quickly as it seems to have done for others. Maybe it’s my Asperger’s Syndrome, the fact I pay attention to every little detail and don’t let anything past unless it’s been examined, interrogated, probed and analysed, every last ounce of information and experience wrung from it before it’s let go. At sixteen I felt I’d lived a lifetime, by twenty-five I was sure I’d lived three, and now, at thirty-five, I feel older than the dinosaurs.
So I’ve never understood how time can just fly by.
And yet, one piece of parenting advice has been ringing true of late: ‘Make the most of each moment because they grow so fast.’
Over the full range of eighteen years, the changes are going to be slow and steady and we can revel in them one by one. At this age, however – from about three months – the changes come thick and heavy and uncomfortably fast. I mean, yesterday Izzie had no idea her feet existed; today they’re the most exciting thing in the world and if she’s not staring at them or reaching for them, she’s stuffing them into her mouth.
The speed with which she’s come on in the past three weeks is incredible. She can now roll on her side…
..support her own weight (albeit with a steadying hand)…
…hold her own bottle…
…put giraffes in her mouth…
…and she’s teething. Which means if she isn’t talking non-stop, she’s trying to cram everything she can get her hands on into her mouth, or, failing that, chewing on her hands themselves.
What is more, her personality is developing daily. She’s a happy, inquisitive, strong-willed, hyperactive sod with quite a temper on her if you don’t understand what she wants and respond quickly enough for her liking. If you make eye-contact with her while she’s feeding, she smiles and tries to talk to you, causing her to spill her milk everywhere and start to choke. But if you’re holding her while talking to someone else, she gets grumpy that she’s being left out of the conversation.
And she wants entertaining now, too. Things that interested her a fortnight ago aren’t good enough anymore. A few random noises? No, perform for me, daddy! When I sang Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’ to her the other night, she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard, which was a little disconcerting given what it’s about (look it up if you don’t know). Then yesterday, when we were playing, I said to her in my best French accent, ‘Ah, ma petite pomme de terre!’ and she burst into tears and wouldn’t stop crying for ten minutes. So, soft rock, good, French, bad. Good to know.
The truth is, we have to make the most of each moment, because if you’re looking the other way, you’ll miss a world of development going on in your own living room. Right now, you have to embrace every moment or it’ll be gone forever, because they do indeed grow up fast.
So fast, in fact, that I’m actually feeling nostalgic about how she was a month ago – that baby that seemed to sleep a lot more, and struggled against us less. The baby that wasn’t quite as wilful as the one we’ve got now, because believe you me, she is going to be quite a handful – as stubborn and fiery-tempered as both of her parents. Or ‘determined’ and ‘passionate’, to put a positive spin on things.
In all honesty, part of this nostalgia comes from the fact that I’m scared of the future. It’s selfish and stupid, but I’ve been so darned good at this baby thing, I don’t want her to move on to the next phase. Lizzie takes her to baby groups and to parties and out swimming, and as Izzie grows up she’s going to love those things more and more. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I really struggle going to things like that, and while Lizzie has this innate understanding of toddlers and children, I never have, even as a child. As Izzie grows and becomes less like a baby, more like a toddler, and turns to her mum for the ‘fun’ things, I’m terrified of being left behind.
Of course, my relationship with Izzie will always be different from Lizzie’s relationship with her. I’m just paranoid that as she becomes more complex, I’ll struggle to relate to her or understand her as I do now, and that would break my heart.
But then, I think that in this society, we’re programmed to believe that change wrought by time is universally bad. You lose your hair, your teeth, and your bladder control; standards drop everywhere you look; kids run around like rootless, feckless waifs; and you don’t understand the world you live in anymore.
Clearly, given the numbers who tell you to cherish every moment, plenty of people feel as though their children ‘slipped through their fingers’, to paraphrase the song from Mamma Mia that made all our mums cry. But instead of focusing on what we lose, let’s look at what we gain over time – experience, confidence, a deeper understanding of ourselves and richer, more fulfilling relationships.
The only way of surviving both life and parenthood with a modicum of happiness is to embrace the passage of time, not resist it. Instead of wanting Izzie to stop growing, instead of holding on and resenting that we have to change, I should let go, enjoy every individual moment as a single thread in a lifelong tapestry of such moments. I will not be losing anything as Izzie develops because our relationship will grow, and both of us with it. Tomorrow, I will not be who I am today, and that will be a result of my changing relationship with my daughter. We’ll be different together. And that, my friends, is life.
Anybody who has seen the movie Alien cannot forget the scene where they try to cut the face-hugger off John Hurt, only to discover it has concentrated acid for blood. It burns through the deck, so they run down below to see it burning through to the next deck, and the next, and the next. It stops just before it eats through the hull and vents into space. Great scene.
Except when you experience it yourself.
The other night Izzie was sitting in my lap while I was feeding her when I suddenly thought, ‘Why does my general groin area feel damp?’It turned out that Izzie had peed, and it had somehow made its way through her nappy, through her vest, her leggings and her dress, through my shirt, through my jeans, through my underwear and to my skin. She doesn’t have urine in her bladder: she has some super powerful alien pee that cuts through whatever you put in the way to stop it. I thought showering vomit out of my armpits was bad; washing your daughter’s pee off your man-parts in the sink is something else altogether!
But now I’ve written it, this story will be remembered. That is my revenge. It will be resurrected in years to come whenever Izzie needs a little embarrassing, and should she wish to know what she was like as a baby.
The same can’t be said for my origins. All I know about my birth is that my mother didn’t form placentas properly, something she found out when my brother was born weighing three pounds, so when she fell pregnant with me she had injections to give me extra nourishment in the womb. My dad missed my brother’s birth so was adamant he’d be there for mine. During labour the midwife told my dad it’d be hours before I arrived so he should go to the canteen and get a cup of tea. Five minutes later I popped out, and I’ve been disappointing him ever since.
Having had a baby, I want to know more. What exactly were these injections? Where did they go? How long was the labour? What pain relief did she use? How did they feel when they first saw me? And afterwards, what was I like as a baby? How was I over the first few weeks? I want info!
Unfortunately, my parents can’t remember anything beyond the fact that I was a miserable sod who made their lives a living hell. For one thing, it was thirty-five years ago; for another, in the blur of nappies, feeds, a jealous toddler, and moving house two weeks after I was born, all the colourful little details that put flesh on the bare bones of the story weren’t committed to memory, so were lost.
I’m not unusual in this. Asking around, it seems that for most of us, our early years are a hazy dream, some facts with very little context and a couple of out-of-focus photographs of us being held by people with bad haircuts and worse clothes. In those days, before paternity leave, when men’s involvement with babies started and ended with ‘breadwinner’ and they left the women to raise the kids, when the most technical thing in the house was a calculator and everything was written by hand, dishwashers were for the rich and microwaves cost the moon, it’s only to be expected that they spent their time trying to survive, not recording the minutiae of my life.
In today’s day and age, there’s no excuse. Apps, blogs, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter; cameras and notepads and recording devices built into your phone; it takes just a couple of minutes a day to make sure that nothing is forgotten.
All those little idiosyncrasies you love right now, the funny faces, the amusing behaviours, those precious features that make your baby so uniquely yours, can easily be lost in the fullness of time. As our children cannot remember this time themselves, it falls to us, their parents, to remember for them: the way Izzie stares at a point over my shoulder when I feed her, making me paranoid someone is sneaking up behind me; the way she grabs my bottom lip and tries to twist and pull it off; and the way she reaches one fist above her head and stretches out her body as though she thinks she’s Superman. The stories we tell now need preserving for posterity.
In years to come, when they hate us and wish we were dead, when they’re pushing our buttons and making us insane and we can’t think what on earth ever possessed us to have kids in the first place, we need to remember how we feel now, the love that binds us all together, and all the little things that make it worthwhile. Because this is the best thing we’ve ever done.
We owe it to them to make memories of this time. We also owe it to ourselves.