All parents have experienced the dreaded stranger coming up to them and saying, “Cherish these years; it goes by so fast.” It can feel like a gut punch.
If you’re exhausted and holding on to a thread, it can make you feel like a failure. If you’re doing OK, it can leave you with a sense of dread that these are the best moments life has to offer, and it’s all downhill from here. So let’s unpack some potential reasons why people say this and how to think about it differently, starting with the why:
- They are unaware. People who say this to parents tend not to think of how it will be received. They don’t consider whether it would make you feel good or bad.
- They want to engage. When I walk my dog, I’m always amused by how people approach me to interact with my pet. It is socially taboo to do that with children, so people resort to talking about their own experiences (e.g., I have two daughters, and they are all grown up now.) or offering (unsolicited) advice.
- They have regrets. When probed, sometimes these people say they wish they had spent more time with their kids when they were younger. They wish they weren’t as distracted. They may feel that they are protecting you from making the same mistake.
No matter their rationale for sharing, you have to deal with the emotional aftermath. To assuage any guilt or anxiety that it may cause, consider these points:
- If you feel bothered by this comment, it is most likely because you already know that children grow up fast. You try to stay in the present moment and enjoy your children as much as possible. You are already doing it.
- There is good and bad for every age. Babies are absolutely adorable and utterly exhausting. Think through the years you’ve had with your child or children, and remember the wonderful—and the hard. Every stage is a mixture of both, and people with reminiscent, rose-colored glasses have forgotten that. Try to release any guilt you feel for not adoring every parenting minute you spend. It is normal and right to have complex feelings about a complex experience.
- You carry it all with you. Scroll through your camera roll, and you may feel a pang of nostalgia. Instead of imagining it as a loss, reframe it with gratitude. You have felt profound love in this life. It is not gone. You will hold that feeling and those memories forever. They are part of you now. And when you see an unshowered, exhausted parent with a crying baby at the store, you may even feel grateful that you made it through.
- Heal your inner child. Sometimes, when we feel deep pangs about our children growing up, it may mean we are disconnected from our inner child. Find a quiet place where you will be uninterrupted, and ask for the child part of you to come forward. Dialogue with your inner child, asking what they want and need. Make them feel seen and loved. Honoring that relationship and bringing your inner child into the present day can take the pressure off of your children to stay young.
- You can be a proactive empty-nester. If you find the empty-nesting years to be challenging, you can seek out counseling or a dear friend to process those feelings. Next, you can look for new outlets to build meaning and excitement in your life. Many people are productive and satisfied in their empty nesting years. Trust yourself that you will figure out how to do that, too.
It can be hard not to take what people say personally or stew on it for days afterward. When you step back, though, hopefully, you can see that their comments say far more about them than you.