For years, I have kept a notebook by the side of my bed, the pages filled with my children’s milestones. With teeth cut, with words uttered, with laces tied, with pedals pushed. When my first son was born, I wanted to catch every last detail, to snare them all, like the slippery fish they are, in the net of permanence language casts so well. I wanted future access to the moments I knew would slip, inevitably at some point, through the cracks of my mind. What I wanted, I see now, was nothing less than to be able to hold his childhood in my hands, once it was gone, and to say, yes, I remember it, I remember it intimately, each fleeting drop.
The notebook was an insurance policy that I would remember who my son was at 16 months old and then again at 36 months old, that I would remember the difference between those incarnations of him and how he got from one to the other. From the toddler who would sleep 15 hours a day to the boy who is still thumping around in his bed gone 10 pm. From the three- year-old with the clipped English accent, performing brain surgery on me with a stethoscope, to the eight-year-old bearer of broad Glaswegian vowels, between whose feet everything becomes a football.
When my second child was born, I bought another notebook. And when the twins came along, I bought yet another two. There were lapses in the entries, of course there were lapses. In between the task of chronicling life is the business of living it. But no major milestone went unrecorded. The when and the how were just as telling to me as the what. Taken together, I felt, these details were evidence somehow of the most important evolutions I would ever witness. I can’t put my finger on why exactly I needed to pin down my children’s development in this way, to preserve these moments like so many butterflies on a collection board, except to say that I sensed, from the beginning, a responsibility.
Before I had children, I was a classicist. An education spent tracing the lines of historical inheritance had shown me that the events of the past only reside with us in the present through the careful transmission of words, because somebody had the foresight to realize this, this is significant, this is worth putting on paper. If I wasn’t that person for my children, who would be? If I didn’t keep custody of the facts of their early existence, there was a good chance those footprints would fade away altogether.
Oblivion was a risk I was not willing to take. And I deemed memory too wily a creature to trust on her own, not with an enemy so powerful as the passage of time. The ancient Greek word for oblivion is lethe, which means “forgetfulness.” The word for “truth” is aletheia, which means, literally, an un-forgetting, because forgetting, the Greeks believed, is the way you lose your grip on the truth. From the night I became a mother and began charting feed times by moonlight, it was clear that, in the battle against oblivion, writing would be my weapon of choice. It was words, I was convinced, that would allow me to hold tightest to the “truth” of this almost indescribable thing that was happening to me.
My pen has not failed me. The written documentation I have compiled over the past eight years has helped me to remember my children as babies, to remember them as toddlers, to remember them in a way that photographs alone, for example, have not. There are reams and reams of pictures saved on my computer, but an image of my daughter at two and a half cannot tell me that that was the age she asked her first “why” question. Nor can it tell me what it was that she asked.
Recently, however, I have noticed a change. While the notebook still sits by the side of my bed, the pages are emptier than they used to be. One of my kids will say something or do something and I will think, aha, a breakthrough in logic! A new feat of independence! But time will pass and I won’t have written it down. My twins, my last children, have just celebrated their third birthday and this can’t be a coincidence. At three, they have pushed through the door which marks the end of the truly formative period, into a room where development is not so fast and furious, where age is no longer measured in days or weeks or months.
Quite suddenly, it seems, we have begun the long march of years. As our family life becomes more about the broad strokes and less about the fine points, so does the way I find myself accounting for it. The details and dates I once obsessed over have given way to bigger-picture essays, essays like this one, that attempt to pin down a different kind of truth. A truth that will, in turn, leave me with a different kind of memory. In Greek mythology, the goddess Memory, Mnemosyne, is the antidote to oblivion. She is also the mother of the muses. Whatever I remember about them in the future, however I write about them from hereon in, the one thing I know for certain is that my children will always be my muses.
“Most sweet, vigilant, she reminds us of all the thoughts that each one of us is for ever storing in our hearts, overlooking nothing, rousing everyone to consciousness.”
-Orphic Hymn to Memory
Read more essays on ages 1 – 10 in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood.