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The Heartbreaking Parenting Mistake I Can Never Fix

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Photograph by Twenty20

If moms were to get parenting report cards, I suspect my most recent one would show a B-. That is, if I'm being graded on a curve.

My younger daughter starts kindergarten at the end of August, which will also mark eight years since my older daughter was born. Next month is also the eight-year anniversary of when I started working from home full-time while having one or both of my girls home with me full- or part-time. I designed my work life to be with my kids, and I'm grateful my career path enabled me to adjust under less-than traditional conditions.

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While I wouldn't trade having the girls home for so long, the party I'll be throwing for myself on the day both girls get on the school bus will still be epic. Of course at my age, that probably means a beer with lunch and then a nap, but still. It's been a rewarding eight years on many levels, although on even more levels, it's been absurdly stressful. While on paper I have it all, for me that also means I don't do any of it well. If I'm succeeding at work, my kids suffer. If I'm being a good mom, my work falls by the wayside. It has put a strain on my marriage for me to be home full-time, too, as I have inevitably harbored some resentment toward my husband for not fully acknowledging—enough—exactly what being a full-time mom and full-time worker entails.

There are no second chances when it comes to your small children's time.

I'd do it again, though. In fact, I had a second child partly because I felt I needed to do it again—because I missed so much the first time around. Even though I was with my older daughter nearly nonstop from the time she was conceived until she started part-time preschool at age 3, and then her full-day school at age 5, my time with her was more about quantity than quality, which I repeatedly told myself was more important in the younger years if I could only choose one.

We went to music and gymnastics together, yet despite my grand plans for more arts and crafts projects, more walks to the river, more reading time, more afternoons spent in onesies (her, not me), more snowman-making afternoons, more sweet nothings and cuddles, and more days spent just being instead of ticking things off to-do lists, I fell short. Way short. I always promised her (and me) that we'd do it (whatever it was) later because I was busy working, cleaning, organizing or even just feeling lazy. When she outgrew her onesies, it hit me like a rancid diaper pail that later had come and gone. I panicked and promised myself I'd do it better with the next kid.

That next kid is about to turn 5 and has one foot out the door. I've been hit hard again with the stench that I failed once more. Later was here, and I missed it again. A lot.

I'm not too big on beating myself up. My kids are healthy, happy and cute (you know, except when they're not). I never expected perfection would befall me or my kids by virtue of just giving birth. But I did expect that making great efforts to be physically present would mean I'd also have an exponentially larger presence emotionally. Instead, too often I found myself too tired or anxious to be there in the way that I intended.

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Of course I can take a new path moving forward, but at a time when my family prepares to enter a significant new phase, which is also a time I've always imagined I'd be bursting with bittersweet emotions, I'm easily filled with way more bitter than sweet, and I have no one to blame but me.

Whoever tells parents to enjoy every minute deserves to be tarred and feathered. On the other hand, believing that putting off today what you assume will necessarily come at some undetermined point in the future is essentially the same as ensuring it'll never happen. It's not a matter of making and fulfilling a list, rather, it's an entirely different approach. There are no second chances when it comes to your small children's time. Later is now.

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