Once upon a time, we had a cat.
A fluffy black cat named Ebony; our first furbaby, who preceded the arrival of our son a few years into our marriage.
To him, Ebony was magic. From the moment he first laid eyes on her, all she had to do to elicit gales of wild giggles was coyly saunter past.
When my son was two, Ebony got sick. She was old, there wasn’t much that could be done, so we gave her goodbye cuddles as a family, and then my husband made the difficult trip to the vet to end her suffering.
I knew he was little, but I desperately wanted my son to remember her.
So every so often, we would talk about Ebony. Did he remember what colour she was? Did he remember the mean neighbourhood cat who used to come in our yard and scare her? Did he remember what happened when she got old and sick?
And for a while, he did. But one day, when I asked him, “Do you remember our cat?” He responded sincerely, “No.”
“Do you remember what her name was?”
“Do you remember what colour she was?”
I showed him the photo I took of him stroking her as we said goodbye, and asked “Who’s that?”
“I dunno. A cat.”
I tried to jog his memory a few more times in the weeks after we had that conversation, but with a broken heart, I had to admit the truth – the cat that he had loved dearly for over two years of his life had coyly sauntered out of his memory.
Despite my best efforts, my son doesn’t remember Ebony – like at all.
But on reflection, I know that she is the reason he absolutely adores cats. He doesn’t remember chasing her around the house in a desperate bid to pat her. He doesn’t remember pressing his nose against the window to watch her pad around the garden. He doesn’t remember her name. But that love of cats is cemented in his being. She’s the reason my boy is a cat person. So although my heart hurts at all the precious memories he’s lost, I can’t be sad about her legacy.
Carl W Buehner famously said “They may forget what you said – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
If there’s one sentiment, one motivational quote, that applies to every parent, it is this. Except maybe tweaked a little, so it reads like this:
“They may forget what you said, what you did, and all the little details – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
The truth is, we’re all pretty fixated on doing and being the best for our kids. And that’s great, and we should be – but in the times when we’re less than perfect parents, and in the times when we’re not proud of how we handled things, and in the times when we regret saying the wrong thing to our children in haste, and in the times that we downright fail, there is one blessing we can count on.
They won’t remember it all.
A study of kids’ memories in 2013 revealed that children lose most memories of their earliest years (up to age three) by the time they’re seven years old. It’s called childhood amnesia, and the study found that only about 35% of those early memories actually stick around.
What this means for us as parents is that the way we remember our kids’ childhoods and the way they remember them are two vastly different versions of events.
For me, the memories count.
My soft mama heart needs to remember the big things and the little things, the milestones, the firsts, and the hilarious quotes that only small children are capable of. I need to remember the good times so I can think of them fondly (and maybe a little wistfully!) as my kids grow. I need to remember the bad times so I can aim to do better as a mother.
My son, however, doesn’t need those things. He needs learning experiences, big cuddles, a comfortable place to sleep, people who challenge him, kisses on skinned knees, the knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, friends to play with, and above all else, he needs love. He needs to know, no matter what, that he is loved.
Everything else is just details.
So no, he won’t remember Ebony. But his heart will leap with joy at every opportunity he gets to pet a cat. He won’t remember our first family holiday at the beach. But the love of swimming he discovered on that trip will see him running eagerly at the waves every time he finds himself on a sandy shore. He won’t remember Mondays with my parents while I worked, or Wednesday mornings with my mother-in-law while I stole away to write for a few hours. But those were the foundations for the awesome bond that exists between him and his grandparents.
He won’t remember the days that I was too tired to play with him. He won’t remember pleading for “just one last book” at bed time every night, and whether or not I obliged. He won’t remember the times when I was distracted by house work or deadlines or his sister. He won’t remember every kiss, every cuddle, every tickle, every heartfelt “I love you, baby”.
But he will remember how I made him feel.
He will remember that he never had any reason to question my love for him. He will remember that when he was hurting, he never had to go through it alone.
And to him, that’s all that really matters.