Not long after my son was born, a friend and fellow parent said that in parenting the only constant is change. At the time, I took her comment to mean something akin to “Oh they grow up so quick.” But as the years go on, I realize that she was saying something much more profound and important.
As a parent, the persistence of change cuts both ways. It can inspire great relief and great regret. It can help you let go on a rough day, and can make you want to hold on with all your might on a good day. It dulls the aching of long toddler tantrums, and amplifies the strength of big bear hugs. There is nothing like parenting to remind us that all of this is fleeting.
The notion of ever-present change comes at least in part from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who is said to have written, “You can not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing over you.” These fleeting moments, this constant flow, should somehow make us feel hopeless, and sometimes it does. But most parents I talk to don’t feel that way. Instead, change just becomes a part of who we are and how we move through the world. Like a sailboat, tacking against the wind, back and forth, cutting across the current and moving steadily upstream.
Almost two thousand years after Heraclitus another group of philosophers argued that all our experiences are best understood as a flowing stream. In the Principals of Psychology William James wrote:
“Consciousness… does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.”
For James however, we are active participants in our lives even as they rush by us; we retain our agency. He understood that while new waters may always be flowing by, we also change those waters by stepping in them.
The constant change we feel as parents articulates itself as a tension or energy. We are faced with choices constantly, but even when we feel powerless we are not. We dip our hands into the water and the ripples fan out behind our fingers, threads of possibility. We are as shaped by it as it is shaped by us.
Moments pass, the tantrum ends, the smile fades, the sleepless nights are forgotten and so are the sweet snuggly mornings. But even as the stream flows these events are never really gone. They leave their mark, as we do on them. John Dewey put it this way: “the finished and done with is of import as affecting the future, not on its own account: in short, because it is not, really done with.” The changes and choices we face are not simple or insignificant, they stick with us like scents that spark old memories.
If I could give new parents just one piece of advice, it would be “This too shall pass.” All that is hard, all that is joyful, all that is rough, and all that is tender – it will pass and we will grow. We will face new challenges and new celebrations, and each will feel somehow both unique and familiar, similar but always different. It’s the kind of advice new parents hate, because in the end it doesn’t give you much to hold on to.
It is ephemeral, it is wind. But wind can fill our sails if we let it, if we set our sails right and lean in.