Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Your Baby Remembers

When my son was only a few months old, I remember remarking to another mom friend of mine (a mother of two whose daughter was not quite three at the time and whose son was one month younger than my son), "I feel like I'm so incompetent that I'm kind of glad that my son won't remember any of this."

She sighed and replied, "Yes, but I'm getting to the point with my daughter where it makes me sad that she won't remember any of this. I stayed home with her for the first year, but she won't remember that. All she'll remember is that her mom has always worked. We've taken her to Hawaii and shared a thousand intimate moments as a family and none of it really matters because she won't remember it."

I was also saddened by her words. I knew how much she had treasured that year with her daughter and it also broke my heart that her daughter wouldn't remember it. Since then, I've had time to grow into my own version of motherhood and there have been moments that will always be treasured memories for me, but that my son will never be aware of . . . or will he?

Recently I watched what may possibly be one of the saddest stories I've ever watched as a parent on NBC's Nightline. Entitled "The Girl Who Didn't Exist," it was the story of a woman who was kidnapped before the age of five when she went for a sleepover with a new friend. She then spent over thirty years attempting to find the family she lost. Because her kidnapper renamed her right away, the little girl eventually forgot both her own and her parents real names and even what they looked like faded from memory. However, some things did linger in her memory. She remembered her real mother used to sit on the floor to play and color with her. She remembered that it was always joyous when her Navy father would come home and she remembered feeling well cared for. In short, she may not have remembered every detail about her life with her parents, but she remembered what it felt like to be loved. Those memories were enough to keep her from believing anything that her kidnapper told her. They were enough to propel her forward and to believe that she deserved more than the treatment she became conditioned to throughout the rest of her childhood. Over thirty years later, she finally obtained a copy of her birth certificate and learned both her real name and that of her parents. She and her daughter were finally reunited with her parents and extended family last year.

What struck me about this story (beyond what promises to be a little sliver of fear every time my son spends the night with a new friend), was the amazingly strong effect her loving early childhood had on her. Even when her name had been erased from her memory, her self worth was not. Her parents had given her enough love in the four short years they had her that she was able to sustain herself on the strength of that love alone for the rest of her childhood and for all of her early adulthood. In the interview, she made it clear several times that although she had forgotten the details of her early life, she remembered her happiness and she remembered her mother's attachment to her.

Imagine that! A girl who wasn't even aware of what street she lived on, or what year it was when she was abducted, or even her own name after awhile could never forget what it felt like to have a parent make her the center of their world. Her parent's devotion (exhibited in the small things like being willing to play with her, talk to her, and color with her) formed such a foundation for her own self-worth and identity that it was enough to fortify her and keep her from buying in to the dismal surroundings she grew up in for the rest of her childhood. It seems that one never forgets the feeling of being immersed in loving arms, no matter how young they are when that experience happens.

What we do as parents now matters! Both to us and to our children! Four (too short) years was enough to make that girl know what a home and what love was. (Imagine how wonderful her life would have been had she been able to stay in that environment!) Perhaps there is a different kind of memory beyond that of words or easy recall. Maybe it is a sense memory or an emotional memory, maybe it is simply a memory of the spirit or soul, and that memory is what we are shaping when we care for our children before they have words or expression. Parental devotion is a powerful thing and we should never, ever despair that our children will not benefit or "remember" it one day. There are memories you hold in your mind, but there also are others that you hold in the heart and in the soul. These memories are so strong, so foundational, that there are no words adequate for them, but they make up our very definition of ourselves.


Mama Mo said... [Reply to comment]

Absolutely beautiful. Made me tear up a little...

Kacie said... [Reply to comment]

Wow, that's heart-wrenching. I cannot even imagine, and I don't want to really.

We can't know when our children will start to develop real, lasting memories. I have some memories from before I was 3 years old and I trust that they are my own memories rather than just being retold a story.

I remember a big party my parents had right before we moved and looking up at the crescent moon and calling it a "banana moon." And I remember playing a giant game of duck-duck-goose at that party.

I remember getting a big-girl bed and also riding a tricycle in the apartment.

I also remember eating an Arby's roast beef sandwich on the front porch of our new home right as we were moving in, and my parents tell me that the date was right before my 3rd birthday.

It's weird the random things that can stick with a child for the years. So with my own children (oldest is 27 months), I guess I'm trying to enjoy them as best as I can, knowing that if I'm not making lasting memories with them, I'm making memories for myself and an impression on the children no matter what.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Mama MoThanks! I hate that any parent and child had to go through that, but I am thankful that it made me realize the importance of early care. It made me tear up, too! (Must be a mom thing!)

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Kacie I love that you have so many memories and they seem random, but happy somehow! I wonder what our children will latch on to?

Melissa said... [Reply to comment]

As a new mom, I am learning that mommy and baby bonding is all about living in the moment. She won't remember later in life that I made a career sacrifice to stay home with her 4 out of 7 days a week...but, when I play with her, tickle her, give her a bath, read to her, sing to her -- she is happy. In those moments, she is smiling and laughing and happy. She may not remember later on that these moments mattered to her, but they do on a much larger scale. When she has her own children, she will appreciate these minor details, as I now appreciate all the things my mom did for me before I could remember.

Rachelle said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you for posting this! It touched my heart. I hope I can be the kind of mother that can create memories of love and family togetherness.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@RachelleI am sure you already are!

Post a Comment