"You can never get that time back."
A sweet, knowing tribute to the exquisite magic of bonding with your baby?
Or an ignorant, judgmental and sexist dig?
The way it's usually used, I vote the latter.
What makes this phrase -- I'll call it The Dig -- so grotesque? For starters, it's almost invariably uttered in the context of a mother doing professional work when her child is a baby. I've rarely, if ever, heard it aimed at fathers. Why are people so unconcerned with that same sorrowful passage of time when it's dad whiling away time at the office, or hopping on connecting flights?
I actually heard a woman recently (let's call her Marge) passive-aggressively cutting off another woman who was talking about her difficult choice to go back to work. And only minutes later, with no sense of irony, Marge revealed that one of the reasons she chose to stay at home was because her husband traveled so much he was almost never around in their baby's infancy. Apparently, Dads have some sort of time machine where they really can go back -- or else they simply don't matter at all.
But the biggest reason why The Dig deserves a permanent heave-ho is that its usual meaning of "spend every moment with your infant" reflects woeful ignorance of the realities of raising children across the course of their entire development. You can't get any time back -- that's a given. So that means you also can't get back the science fair triumphs, the earnest questions on the way to swim practice, the giggles over after-school snacks, the self-conscious confessions about the uncertainty of the middle school lunchroom scene or the discussions about what to do when everyone else is drinking at that party.
Before kids can talk, they can't lob you those personality-forming quandaries about everything from death to sex to taxes, the conversations that later in life, you'll long to have more time to do over. Not to mention that in the stroller years, you have by far the most ability to make sure your children are safe and happy in your absence: you choose where and with whom and how they will spend every moment of their time. By the time they are old enough to pick their own friends and go marauding around after school, you will pine for the days when you could be sure, while at your job, that they were constantly watched over by a trusted person who had their best interests at heart.
The same people who put such a premium on being around to change their children's diapers are in for a big surprise if they think they can lessen their vigilance come middle-childhood and teenage time, who think that time together is somehow less crucial. The opposite may, in fact, be true. Some think the right career path involves putting it on hold during their children's infancy with the plan of ramping it into overdrive come adolescence. In truth, it's when your child gets older -- and is more susceptible to hormones and friends with Marlboros or worse -- that you may very well wish you had more time at home. And those times when they were choosing whether to drive drunk or not, or when they wished they had you to talk over their sadness of being bullied, those might be the times you most wish you could get back. Seems far more crucial than when their biggest ethical dilemma involved whether to spit out those sweet potatoes.
I'm not saying that being with your baby as much as humanly possible isn't noble or ideal. In fact, it is -- it's so, so important. But it's all important. All those years. They're all mind-bendingly, heart-breakingly important. And the good parents are the ones who take the whole picture into account and respect other parents trying to find their way the best they can.
Because the truth is, of course, time moves forward and never goes back. It's a particularly painful reality as you watch your children grow up, which is probably why The Dig has become so ubiquitous. After all, a parent's biggest challenge -- and privilege -- is to watch these moments and try to make the most of them before they slip away. But those moments are just as important at 5, 10 and 15 as they are at 5 months, and it's not just moms who bear this responsibility, but dads, too.
The next time you want to utter The Dig at some mother just trying to figure it all out, take a step back. Think bigger, even. "What a gift to shape someone's life on a daily basis for nearly 20 years," you might ponder instead. And you might remember it goes farther than spending afternoons cooing at them in their bouncy seats.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix. She also writes the long-time mental health advice column Baggage Check in the Washington Post Express.
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