The elderly woman wrapped a warm thin hand around my forearm and leant in close. At first I thought she had stopped to steady herself as she shuffled down the long aisle at Broadway Coles. But with a smile on her lips, she leaned in so our faces nearly touched and said: “These are the best years of your life. They will go quickly. Cherish them. Don’t have regrets.”
She gently patted the sling that held the 12-week-old bundle snugged softly against my sore, leaking breasts, nodded firmly and walked away.
It was the first of many times over the following decade that I would be stopped by a stranger and given the same advice. But I’ll never forget that first old lady, because at the time her warning bemused me. “The best years of my life.” Seriously?
I was 21 years old and had found myself 1,000 kilometres away from family and friends, unexpectedly navigating parenthood, university study and work. I wanted to arrogantly scoff “I’m educated, I have ambition, I haven’t slept in two months, I sing nursery rhymes 18 hours a day and I accidentally left the house in my pyjama bottoms this morning – surely this is not as good as it gets!”
But time makes fools of us all. Flip forward 13 years and I’ve just sat down at my desk after seeing my fourth, and last, child off to her first day of school. It’s the end of an era; a great big chunk of my 33 years of living ends today. And the old lady at Coles was goddamn right.
In the years between then and now, I carried four wonderful people, nurtured them, saw their characters develop, independence blossom, talents emerge, vulnerability morph into resilience and ideas become beliefs and opinions.
There have also been countless career opportunities passed up. Jobs I’ve stepped away from so my husband could step up to his, without removing both parents from the household from 7am to 7pm. Press releases written with newborns at my breast and toddlers under my desk.
Brainstorms punctuated by nappy changes and playtime. Potential clients turned down because there simply weren’t the hours in the day to give them, and my family, the attention they deserved. And I wondered, hoped, prayed I wouldn’t come out of that period with regrets.
Years later, and the little bundle that lay in the sling that morning at Coles will become a teenager this year, and begin high school next year. I try to conjure her voice at age two; the pitch, the tone, the divine mispronunciations. Those little things slip through our consciousness and become tiny memory fragments we will never feel, hear or smell again.
And so today, no regrets. Sure, I could have earned a bit more money. Could have chased bigger fish. But the times when I tasted that life – missed class presentations, half-cooked meals at 8pm, holidays spent stressing over poor internet connection and missed emails, fights with the husband and kids who fell asleep on the hardwood office floor at night, waiting for me to finish work so I could spend time with them, made me realise I didn’t want what came with it. So like many other women, I down-scaled my career just as it was taking off. Because I knew I could never go back and do this ‘mother’ thing again.
When I was a teenager, schoolbags were plastered with bumper stickers that said “girls can do anything”. Career counselling consisted of lectures about law, medicine, physiotherapy, stockbroking and journalism. Home economics was removed from the curriculum. It would have been considered downright sexist to point out the paradox.
Some careers can accommodate the needs of a family better than others; those choices – whether we like it or not – exist. We can do anything. But if we want healthy, happy, satisfying lives – we can’t do it all simultaneously. Man or woman, there are choices, sacrifices and losses down either path.
We do not raise boys or girls to think like this. We don’t educate them to jobshare, downscale, work from home. We raise them to take every opportunity, rise to the occasion, get a bigger office, build a more impressive client list, fulfil their potential. No one mentions what we have to surrender, on the professional or personal front, to do this.
Earlier this month, the girls and I stood by the bed of their deceased 92-year-old great grandmother. As her body lay surrounded by family members, the room was filled with love and gravity. It didn’t matter how much of the planet she had traversed, who she had impressed or how many degrees adorned her office wall. She had raised sons, grandsons, nursed a dying husband and buried a son.
She had been a community member, friend, devoted great-grandmother, card writer, tennis player, book lover and never forgot a birthday. And in that moment of death, that is all that mattered, that’s all that remained, treasured.
Our children are the warmth that we leave in the world long after our own fires are extinguished. The gravity of those early years is hard to imagine when we dream of writing headlines, performing surgery, drafting legislation or publishing books, as opposed to changing nappies, mediating Lego disputes and doing the bedtime routine – but it’s profound.
Once kids start school, they enter a vortex from which they never return to be fully, totally ours again; time with them is negotiated around a timetable of school days, weekends, social lives, activities, term dates and holidays.
And they emerge young adults, with dreams, plans and all those forks in their own roads to navigate. Much of their journey will be done without us. We will never stand by their side as we do in those first five years.
So for those of you fidgeting at home today with a restless baby at the breast, for those who have been interrupted by a toddler 20 times while you read this, I can promise you one thing. You will never regret the sacrifices you make for them now.
It may not be possible to fully appreciate the beauty of this time while you are in the midst of it. But one day, sooner than you can imagine, you will be standing on the other side of this chapter, trying to remember how their skin smelt, how their body felt sitting on your hip, head on your shoulder – and you will be filled with gladness for every moment, good and bad, that you experienced with them.
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