You must remember this

I spend a lot of time thinking what it must be like to be one of my kids.  Before you say, “Oh, you’re such a good mommy!” it’s not really like that.  If anything, I’m all the more culpable for being so mean sometimes.  I actually can really, vividly imagine what it’s like to be, for instance, so so upset about someone saying that “Catsy Cootsy Tatsy Wootsy” is a stinky name for a robot — and yet I still say, “Oh, don’t be so silly, who cares?  You stop crying and clean up this room.”  Even though I remember what that’s like.

Anyway, I was thinking about those strange, stranded childhood memories that stay with us.  We say, “When I was little, we always used to sit under the lilac tree and play farm using fruit snacks for animals” when really that only happened one time.  Or our entire sixth year of life is represented by a memory of a maple seed helicopter that someone drew on with green marker and put in our hair.  Probably something else happened that year!  But that’s all we can remember, is the helicopter.

I just wonder how these memories stick.  Why?  I drive down the same country road four times a day, five days a week, with the four little ones strapped into their dank car seats.  Sometimes we chat, sometimes we listen to music, sometimes they yell and kick at each other, and fight over the last of the graham crackers.  But most of that time, they’re just looking out the window.

I glance back and see those dark, placid eyes drinking in the golden leaves, the endlessly unfurling stone walls, the occasional thrilling squirrel or cocker spaniel as we rattle down the road — that familiar landscape that ought to be so soothing and reassuring, and the perfect, idyllic setting for a whole year of comfortable childhood memories.  There’s even a funny plaster bull in somebody’s yard.  That would make a nice memory!

But I know perfectly well the strangeness inside a child’s head.  I remember that simmering stew of comfort and confusion, tedium and alarm, affection and sudden spikes of dread.  And I remember all the adults trotting along so callously, so bafflingly unaware of all the terrible dangers in the world, the savage mysteries that grown-ups pretend are nothing at all, just a shadow, just a plastic bag caught in the wind, just the sound of the house settling.

Some of my children are worriers and brooders, and I understand them.  I can tell them, “It’s all right — it’s all right.  You’ll grow up, and you’ll see that the world is not so terrible.  There is a way out of this dark hole, and there is so much to look forward to.  Just hang in there, and you will not always be a child!  You can do it.”  But that doesn’t help them now.  They don’t know what I mean, and they don’t realize that I understand.

I wish I could choose their memories for them.  When I’m feeling up to it, I try and bulldoze them over with poignant, satisfying experiences, so that they’ll have something good for when they grow up.  And really, I know it’s not for their sake — it’s for mine.  It’s so they can tell me, “Remember when you used to sing that song you made up while we were waiting for the eggs to scramble?” and I can say, “Oh, yes, you were such a difficult child . . . but I made you happy, didn’t I?” and they will say, “Yes, Mama, and we appreciate that.  You were a good mother.”

Ridiculous.  That is not what will happen.  When they have their own kids, they’ll wonder why I couldn’t have been nicer, why I had to be so critical, so capricious, so impatient and embarrassing.  They will love me, but it will be love with exasperation, accomplished with fortitude.  I know that whoever my children will turn out to be, it will be because of their own experiences, their own personality, their own genetics, their own little portions of grace that God chooses for them.  So very, very little of who they are will come from me, even though I crack my brain trying to think of everything they will need.

And of that, they will remember – – what?  The time I yelled at them on their birthday; and maybe also the time I made kitten-shaped pancakes for lunch.  Maybe they’ll just remember me brushing their hair.

I hope the time they remember is the time I remembered to be gentle.



  1. Great post! Some of what your children remember will depend on what filter they are using (expect distortions if they are depressed), but their many siblings will help to keep them grounded with corroborative or conflicting testimony. When our five daughters were together for the graduation of one, they reminded my husband and I of the time when, on the night before school started one year, after all the new supplies were labelled and assembled, one of the younger ones threw up on some new colored pencils, laid out for full appreciation of their beauty. I was not home, and my husband heard the six year old crying that she would never be able to start school tommorrow since her coloured pencils were ruined. He told her, “Don’t worry, I’ll put them in the washing machine and they’ll be fine!” And he did. And they remember that I was very upset to come home and find that he had placed 24 pre-sharpened coloured pencils in the washing machine. But the pencils were fine and the washer was fine. And all of my children know that their father loves them so much that their sadness makes him a little crazy, so it’s all good (I don’t mind that they remembered that I was a stinker about it). We had forgotten the story entirely till the kids brought it up. They will be cheering us and each other well into our old age with this kind of hilarity. One of the youngest’s favorite memories was the time when the power went off just as I finished taking chocolate chip cookies out of the oven to go with their hot chocolate. She was only four, and sometimes of a winter evening she would say, “I wish the power would go off so we could have hot chocolate and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in the dark.” One of the great things about having lots of family around you is the folklore that grows up with you. So remember, you’re making memories sure, but you’re sowing great stories as well (once in a while, you’ll be the villain, but only when it plays better that way).

  2. They will remember that you ALWAYS made kitten-shaped pancakes for breakfast and will wonder why they are such abject failures as parents that they don’t even want to. One day they will even ask how you, The Marvel of Motherhood, accomplished such feats. They will not believe you that you only did it the one time. The time you yelled at them on their birthday will stand out as the aberration, and perhaps even comfort them, when they too, fail at that perfect parent job on a high-stakes occasion.
    But mostly, they will remember those pockets of wonder. They will one day fondly tell you how much they loved that giant sculpture of the woolly mammoth in the neighbors yard. You will tell them it was a bull.

    They will pat your hand knowingly, lovingly and smile sadly at how the memory if the first thing to go.


  3. This is so beautiful. This is me, down to the last punctuation mark. Thank you. Intergenerational relationships are so fraught with good and bad…probably the part they remember will depend on their overal emotional health on any given day. :/

  4. Painful post.

    When my infant screams in the car because he’s been in the car seat for too long, which he always hates, I comfort myself by saying, “he won’t remember this, he’s only three months old.”

    Thankfully, he also won’t remember the time (last weekend) when we took him camping and exposed him to the redneck riviera in Maryland where a band played until 2am, and girls sang (badly) Shania Twain songs until 3am and I woke him up every hour to make sure that he wasn’t freezing to death.

    Memory is sometimes our ally.

  5. What a tender post, thank you. This is just something I worry about all the time, my eldest only being three and our days often being filled with arguing and breakdowns. I thought I was the only one! You really think so little of our children comes from us? Some days that thought would be a comfort to me though!

  6. This is a beautiful post, and one that really strikes at the heart of what it means to be a parent, but also what it means to be a child. I suppose we can’t control the things that our children remember us for. So all the best we can do is try our damndest to make it so that the good things outweigh the bad things.

  7. In my family- we also have a lot of ‘always’ that probably happened only once- we are a bit dramatic that way. I just hope that the times that I ‘always’ mixed the chicken feed with eggs (yes- as a 6 year old) and turned the hens into cannibals happened once. 🙂

  8. Simcha, this is totally unrelated to this post (which I didn’t even read fully because I’m at work and should be doing something more productive), but I LOVE YOU. You are real, and honest, and funny. I like Elizabeth Foss’ blog, but she gives me hives of inadequacy. You are comforting and give me hope that my family can turn out loving and Catholic in the midst of our chaos and imperfection. I hope you take this as a compliment. If not, chalk it up to my chaos and imperfection.

    • Yes. I also break out in hives, and I’ve only got two so far, which makes me feel like a failure (how do you manage when both are sick and want Mommy? How do you deal with a toddler who says, “Mommy, can you just hold me?” when you’re in the checkout lane with your baby in the Ergo, arms full of groceries, and your wallet in your mouth, trying to find your debit card? Is this motherhood thing possible?)

      Thank you, Simcha. You give me hope, too.

      Plus the “stages of exhaustion” post was a really useful diagnostic tool. “Should not attempt to learn Urdu or attempt brain surgery today. Am at Level Five.”

  9. Memory is a tricky thing. It’s hard to know sometimes if memories before the age of five are real memories or projected memories after hearing the story a million times. My second daughter often tells the story of when her older sister at age 3 peed in the under seat compartment of a little push car when her access to the bathroom was blocked and she didn’t want to pee on the floor; never mind that DD#2 was barely a year old (if that) when it happened. My husband’s father died when he was five, and he only has a handful of genuine memories and those are mostly impressions.

    I’ve gone into parenthood just accepting that my kids will find something wrong with my parenting no matter how good I do. You can’t please all the people all of the time. But sometimes I wish that I gave them a little less obvious stuff to find fault with.

  10. There will be reminiscences without villains and there will be some for each member of the family to be the villain. Better drama that way.

  11. This post made my heart ache. You never do know what will stick, and why.

    The only hope is that the constancy of parental love is like a filter through which all else gets felt. When they grow up and see how awful the world can be, how deep the tire tracks across the back can go, the disappointment that comes from just about all expected angles, hopefully realize that their family was their fortress against it all. And will continue to be.

  12. In conjunction with invoking your “August fun panic”, I periodically find myself doing something unusually fun with my kids with the deliberate, desperate hope that it will be the thing they remember years from now, thus clouding over my more shameful performances. It’s a kind of silent bribery they don’t know they are party to…

  13. i enjoy your posts; many of them make me laugh… this jerked my tears. i too wonder what our seven will remember…

  14. Honestly, growing up in our house was hell. Mostly because there was no consistency, and my mom didn’t really want us around her. She constantly sent us into the other room, outside, etc. Years of this left the clear impression that we were not as beloved as her siblings and parents who received her undivided attention for hours at a time. Now that her children are grown, it’s even more obvious, as we can see that nobody else in our lives treats us with such bored indifference as she does. She’s always congratulated herself on being an awesome mother, despite the fact that every one of her children tells her she lacks empathy.

    My dad had a major temper and was not afraid to explode whenever he was mad. Yet, none of us felt unloved by him, even if we were scared of him. Now that he’s mellowed out, he’s actually a great dad and I just pretend all that other stuff didn’t happen.

    My point: I think kids remember you based on how much love you genuinely put into your mothering. You clearly adore your kids, put them first, want them around, and delight in them. That heals a world of hurt.

  15. Oh my gosh, this is something I think about all the time. Following my worst moments, it haunts me that those might be the ones that leave a mark, like the time my father turned to me in the supermarket while I was happily jabbering away (I was maybe four or five) and said, “do you EVER stop talking??” I can conjure up the deep feeling of hurt even today.

    I think when we become parents ourselves the sting lessens, though. My sister and I both resolved not to be “the yelling mom” because our mom yelled at us so much growing up. Then, years into our own experiences of parenting, we were discussing how perception tends to become reality, even when it’s not so accurate. It was like a light went on — our mom probably didn’t yell as much as we remembered. It just felt that way. That was a good thing to realize….but we in turn were troubled by the fact that nothing we could do could touch our kids’ perceptions of us, however skewed. All we can do is love them fiercely and pray that one day they’ll be able to understand the difference between perception and reality, like we have.

  16. Hmm. Don’t really like this post. I guess I understand what You are saying. What about children who grow up in truly horrible households. Those memories are awful. I just don’t think You are as crummy a mom as You think. Of course, not knowing You, maybe You are a beast….but I doubt that. My children live in a loving home with real human parents. I do try to be better each and every day. I don’t know, I think You are being too hard on yourself.

  17. Nature vs. Nurture…you are obviously a nature sort of gal, but after attending foster/adopt classes, I would say it’s a bit more nurture than we think! 😉

    Love this post.

  18. I grew up in a home that had both extremes. I felt very loved and cherished in some ways, and harshly judged and pressured in other ways. What has helped me so much as an adult is aknowledging the bad, early on I was trying to explain it away, pretend it didn’t happen, “I had parents that loved me! They never went to far in discipline! I was never sexually abused, so I have nothing to complain about!” That was so detrimental for me, because I felt like I was holding some secret grudge against my parents for the excesses in my childhood. Now that I’ve faced the problems that I grew up with, and aknowledged “yes, that happened to me and it sucked” I feel as though I am free to celebrate the good parts about growing up, instead of feeling the need to defend my anger. I think the biggest thing you can do for your kids is to be there to listen when they talk, aknowledge when you’ve messed up and apologize, don’t try to be perfect.

  19. Wonderful, thoughtful post as always, Simcha. It comforts me to know that the only perfect parents were Jesus’ parents. And even they went off and left him alone in Jerusalem.

    As hard as I’ve tried to make good memories (in between the lectures and spankings), my grown up sons only seem to remember how their lives were ruined because I didn’t put them in Little League… and they seem to have forgotten that they’re still praised for being the best altar servers our parish ever had. Ah well…. God remembers what they forget. (Which, um, isn’t always a good thing…)

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