“The Biggest Mistake”

We remember the big moments. Cameras out, we record, first steps, nursery school graduation, a big game and college drop off. But there are so many other moments, seemingly small points in time that somehow slip away. A wise friend said to me that she could barely remember the sensation of leaning over a crib and scooping a sleepy baby into her arms, though she has four grown sons and must have lifted them up hundreds of times.

children at beach, beach vacation Looking back, I wonder if those weren’t the big moments, after all. I wish I had recorded in my mind or my camera those unnoticed minutes and hours that slipped by, the ones that I only now realize are what truly mattered. Like so many things about parenting, Anna Quindlen said it best:

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages six, four, and one. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Moments I wish I could remember:

The first time you have a coffee with your kid and enjoy this very adult ritual together. The quiet morning, the milky coffee, the two of you beginning another day together.

The first time your child is lost in a book. They cannot see or hear because a wonderful author (to whom you will always be grateful) has swept them away.

Leaving our kids at their new dorm room door is an emotional moment, but the real milestone is sometime in that first semester when they realize that, despite how ready they were to leave, how they hated us all summer and counted the days until move-in, some part of them misses home and their very own bed.

The day they show you something technological that you didn’t know. This happens at a disarmingly early age and at the same time you are overwhelmed by both pride and mild embarrassment. It is a tough to look like an idiot in front of an eight year old.

The whole process of learning and communicating is a revelation in children, but the first time your child understands an abstract concept is nothing short of miraculous. Ditto the first time she reads a word.

The first time we bathe our child and the last time.

The first time they are sick in the night and do not call for us. I learned that my parent medical license had been revoked one morning with one of my high school sons said he had been sick all night, “but didn’t want to bother me by waking me up.” This was a child who woke me up every single night for the first four years of his life. I should have marked this turn of events with applause but instead I felt a little wistful.

It is a disheartening day when your tween decides that you no longer know or understand anything. It is an equally welcome day when your twenty-something realizes that you do. I wish I had remember the day the contempt began and had the wherewithal to remind myself that it would end.

Mark Twain’s dictum may be the best thing ever written about the evolution of teens:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

It is a big moment in every parent’s life the first time their child sleeps through the night. But even when this blessed day comes, they still seem to rise well before dawn. And then one day they don’t. One morning I are stood in my strangely quiet kitchen and realized that my children were still asleep in bed. It is a morning worth recalling.

The first time they go to the movies with you and sit through a full length film. It is that moment when the curtains peel back and the big screen appears, when you see your child’s eye widen in amazement. A little afraid of the dark, my kids crawled into my lap to snuggle, during a showing of Babe. It was a bigger moment for me than any show I have seen on Broadway.

The first time your child is in real trouble. It may be at school, or a ticket for speeding, or a car crash they never saw coming. In an instant their swagger is gone as the full enormity of their action bears down upon them.

The first time they keep a secret. Their first secret often entails a surprise gift for mom or dad crafted in the classroom. Prior to this they have been unable to contain themselves, spilling their every thought, and then one day they keep a secret from you. It is a seminal moment.

Each family has their own moments and for each parent they are so different. It is so easy to have them slip by, so easy to think that the big moments will be obvious when, in fact, they are not. The milestones of childhood are deceptively quiet and sometimes get lost in the noise of far more traditional celebrations or simply everyday life. Anna Quindlen says the problem is not living in the moment, failing to treasure the now over the later, and, of course, she is right. But an equally big challenge is even recognizing childhood’s important moments as they are happening.

With great thanks to our friend and photographer, TBKilman, whose beautiful images provide the illustrations for so many of our posts.  The photo above, a family “moment” is one of our favorites. 




  1. Lisa says

    First time my nine-year-old daughter baked something all by herself. There was a snow day but I had to work. I left the ingredients out for my daughter and the sitter supervised while she made chocolate chip pumpkin bread; there was a great big mess and a little too much baking soda, but for the most part the loaves turned out well. I was a little bit sad when I realized I wasn’t going to be a part of every home-baked good or craft she made. But glad she enjoyed it and got something out of it all the same.

  2. says

    You know, this is why I think “mommy blogging” is undervalued. When I revisit old posts once in a while I’m amazed by how much comes flooding back. I’d forgotten that my son used to stack blocks in my store and call them “block parties” or that my daughter used to think her tie-dye t-shirt should qualify as formal wear because to her it was the most beautiful thing in her wardrobe. Moms documenting the seemingly ordinary is frequently derided, but I am extremely grateful for my blog and wish I had started it earlier.

  3. says

    This made me cry! I too wish I would have slowed down for some of those moments when my boys were little. As all of us have gotten older, I’ve realized this more. Just last week my 16 year old had a rare moment of wanting to chat with me (for longer than 30 seconds!). I had things I needed to do, but I put them aside and sat down with him for over 30 minutes, and we had the best talk. Thank you for this wonderful post!

  4. says

    I love Anna Quindlen’s writing. She always says what I think so well. I think we don’t, and maybe can’t, appreciate things until they are rare. When you’re picking up your babies all the time, it’s hard to feel a constant stream of appreciation. When you’re caring for preschoolers all day, it’s hard to stop and marvel at all the cute things they say. It’s only after it’s all over that you sense the loss. I just returned from the grocery store with my three youngest. Of course, they were moaning about having to run errands and fighting with each other. In my head, I was planning my escape. I noticed an older lady shopping alone throughout my trip though and then she was loading her car alone when I left. I thought to myself, sure I would LOVE some peace and quiet right now, but someday I’ll miss this trip to the grocery store, whining kids and all.

  5. Mommy2busyboys says

    Great post!! Your post made me tear up like crazy! I have a wall decal that says “be present for your children” and there is an insert arrow to add “the” between the word “be” and “present” – making the full statement “be the present for you children”. This is up at my laundry room to help remind me what is important. God knows how often I do laundry so I see this even when I forget to remind myself of this. :)

  6. says

    What a wonderful post. Recently I’ve found another important use for those little moments we parents do remember: amusing or cheering up your children. Nothing brings a smile to my crabby 15-yr-old daughter’s face faster than an old photo of when she was a baby or a toddler (preferably asleep in a high chair with chocolate ice cream on her face, or standing naked in front of the bathtub). Recently I was going through a basket of keepsake photos and school artwork she had made. I found an illustrated poster she had created in about first grade. Under the precious drawing of her on a stick-legged horse was the sentence, “When I grow up, I want to be a caw gru.” Her inability to spell “cowgirl” then is the source of much amusement today. She is still laughing about it. My daughters love to hear stories of the funny things they said when little. One day we borrowed a friend’s minivan for a test drive, because we were considering purchasing that model and it was unavailable at the dealer. As we pulled out of their driveway onto the street, my 3-yr-old looked out the window and exclaimed, “I have TREES on my side!” We had been oblivious to the fact that in our 4-door sedan, her car seat was so low that she couldn’t see out the window.

  7. says

    I agree with Korinthia. I love looking through old blog posts and reading about how I DID treasure the last time I held my youngest child in the rocking chair or the last time we used a crib. I have many moments recorded, but it’s never enough. I think that this is the hardest pill to swallow: no matter how hard you try to record and appreciate and live in the moment, the moments still pass.

  8. Carpool Goddess says

    So many precious moments that aren’t recorded and sadly fading away. Though I’ll never forget when my kids drove themselves to school for the first time, putting me and our cozy carpool out of commission. As nice at it was to not have to fight traffic to get across town, I missed the bonding and chatting about their day that came with the car ride.

  9. says

    This is so beautiful. So many important points. My daughter is still quite young, but her first big moment is happening now as she is miles and miles away with her grandparents. Without me!

  10. says

    My mom once told me that she missed the sound of our “little voices”. It wasn’t until my own children got older that I understood what she meant.

  11. says

    This is a truly beautiful post with lovely writing. There are so many of those moments it’s hard to remember them all. One that stands out is realizing when my two young kids had a relationship between themselves of their very own that didn’t have anything to do with me.

  12. says

    I just told my husband the other day that I wished I had photos of the moments that weren’t milestones. For instance, my youngest used to put his hands on either side of my face and turn me to face him if he had something really important to say. Or, first thing in the morning he would come in my room and tap on my pillow and say, “Sunny day, Mommy.” (which sounds annoying but his sweet little voice and his big blue eyes made up or the intrusion). I wish I had captured those moments somewhere. Love the post!