By Hayley Doyle
…But the years are short.
American author Gretchen Rubin famously quoted this. As did the old lady in the supermarket when my toddler was trying to climb out of the trolley. Every minute felt like an hour as I waited in the checkout queue. As the customers ahead of me bagged up their shopping or unloaded their groceries onto the conveyor-belt, I offered my kid a biscuit, a banana, a packet of Pom-Bear, and then begrudgingly a KitKat, followed inevitably by my phone. Needless to say, I felt like a total failure when I couldn’t even bribe her to sit still with YouTube Kids while I got through the final hurdle of the weekly food shop. The old lady sighed kindly, an air of patience surrounding my tense state. With a wisdom I won’t have until I reach her age, she patted my arm and said, “The days are long, but the years are short.”
And there’s an overwhelming truth in this simple saying.
Yesterday, I experienced my daughter’s pre-school nativity play. It was as normal as normal can be. Everything I’d ever imagined became a reality. The entire 30 minutes was quintessentially festive, from tinsel-headed angels to a wonky donkey and Mary’s headscarf falling off again and again. There was the kid screaming the words with bold confidence. Then another kid handed over to mama for cuddles when it all became a bit too much. The nursery teacher clip-clopped about the stage in high heels and dangly earrings, her well-seasoned wink-wink-nudge-nudge routine of encouraging energy a major part of the whole performance. When she prompted Mary to have a little cry because there was no room at the inn, Mary declared to the audience, “I’m not crying because I’m not sad!” And as the pianist played his final chord of ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ to raucous applause, the head teacher thanked everybody involved. On the way out, I acknowledged her and we shared a smile…
Exactly one year ago, Christmas performances at schools all over the world were cancelled. Weeks of hard work and commitment were to be captured on camera and shared on a special link for parents to watch online. Covid was still so very present in our lives. I had contacted the head teacher to see if the children could perform outdoors somehow, or do extra performances to smaller, socially distanced audiences. I’d offered my services to help in any way. With a heavy heart, the head teacher had to say, No. Omicron was about to burst onto the scene. But as a parent, all you want for your child is a sense of normality. A nativity play or similar is a rite of passage. The head teacher had sympathised, then sighed, “Next year…” And oh, how next year felt so far away…
Until yesterday when we smiled at one another.
A year had passed us by in a flash. There had been sleepless nights, anxious days, weeks of struggle and hot summer months, sandwiched between smaller moments, like waiting for test results or for a toddler to calm down from a tantrum. Yet, despite all of this, the earth had revolved around the sun once again. Suddenly. We were all a year older, a year wiser. And yet, there we were. At the nativity. In person. What felt like an eternity one year ago, something so far off into the distance I was convinced would never happen, happened. Without a countdown. Without anticipation. It came…and it went.
Annual celebrations and events can often give us a wake-up call of how quickly our lives zoom past us. If there are certain colleagues you only see at a certain conference once a year, the time spent together might start rolling into one, in your memory. You say things like, “Gosh, has it really been a year?” And you might feel comfortable, as if you’d only caught up with them yesterday, rather than 365 days ago. How is this possible when you’ve had so many long, testing days in between?
There are daily meetings that you endure - and dread - feeling like they drag on forever. Waiting at a red traffic light can make your blood boil as you wonder, is this broken? Having a newborn constantly feeding when all you want to do is sleep can make bedtime seem like an impossible goal. Trying to get your little one’s shoes on without a full-on wrestle leaves you convinced you’ll never leave the house, ever. Waiting for that phone call, that email, that delivery…
But it’s while we’re waiting that the year whips by.
As a kid, you’re itching for your independence. It’s like when Josh Baskin made a wish on the Zoltar machine at a carnival in the movie, Big. What did he wish for? To be BIG, of course. He didn’t want to be 12, because everything he thought he wanted was out of reach for a 12 year old. During my high school years, I just wanted to get them over and done with so I could go to drama school. And as much as I had a blast at drama school, I couldn’t wait to graduate, get an agent and move to London. I was always striving for the bigger picture, taking little notice of where I was in the present. I stuck around in toxic relationships with various people, waiting for them to experience some sort of epiphany and change for the better. When I became single, I longed to find love again, and instead of taking the time to heal, I wished that time away. As Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) says in the finale of The Office, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
When my first baby was born, I was too knackered to “enjoy every minute” like all the handwritten messages said inside the congratulations cards. I would look at mums pushing prams with slightly older babies, who perhaps didn’t need feeding 10 times a day anymore and slept for longer than 45 minutes, and I’d think, I can’t wait until he’s that age. Then when he reached that age and started weaning, I’d see older kids eating a sandwich and think, I can’t wait until he’s learnt how to eat rather than chuck it all over the floor and then cry because he’s starving. When my second baby arrived, I found each gruelling stage easier, in the knowledge that “this too shall pass”. My previous experiences had granted me some wisdom. I accepted downtime, although it was rare. I tried to see a funnier side to the chaos, knowing I’d look back on this short, tiring spell and weirdly pine for it. But I still couldn’t “enjoy every minute”. I had not one, but two little ones who needed me and if I could have torn myself into two, I would have. The waiting kicked in again. I’d stare at the clock, willing my husband to get home from work so he could help me. Sometimes, he would be due home in about 10 minutes, but waiting to hear his key in the door felt like I’d be waiting 10 hours. I wished for my kids to be old enough to play with each other…
Well, now they are.
They do play with each other.
And all I can do is anticipate the day when they’ll understand sharing and negotiation without it ending in tears!
So while we’re constantly seeking the next step, climbing that steep mountain, unable to get a glimpse of the peak, the world keeps spinning. Even the good stuff we plan makes us scramble through, sprinting towards the dates in our diaries. You can’t wait to see your best mate from college and have drinks next Saturday. You booked tickets for that musical ages ago and are counting down the days until you finally get to see it. You’re ordering Thai takeout tonight and you just need to get through the hectic afternoon before you can relax and devour it. We seem to live in a society that is desperate for certainty. Of knowing what comes next. Of hoping things get better.
But what if we embraced the uncertainty? Can we take a moment just to breathe and accept that things might not turn out as we wish? Your best mate might cancel the drinks next Saturday. Your kids might always fight. You might not get that promotion, but you might get a better offer elsewhere that wasn’t even on your radar. You might never fix the problems in your relationship. You might be much happier if you walk away. You might sit down and realise, I don’t fancy Thai tonight, I’ll order pizza instead. And it’s delicious.
Maybe enjoying the uncertainty might grant us more time. It’s unlikely to pass us by because we’re more focused on the moment rather than the future goal. And perhaps, when your day feels long, tell yourself that this is an opportunity to pause. Of course, it’s easier said than done when I have to drag my cranky kids to school by their hands. But one day, they will be too old to hold my hand. They’ll get themselves from A to B without my help at all. And I’ll see a struggling parent in the supermarket, hitting a wall with every attempt at bribery, and I’ll gently say, “The days are long, but the years are short."