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Making My Kid's Memories

Photograph by Getty Images

As parents we are obsessed with carefully marking all kinds of milestones; umbilical cord detritus, first solid food, first steps, haircuts and lost teeth. But I’m obsessed with a different kind of milestone: my kids’ first memories. A first memory is a difficult thing to track, especially when your kids are so young and you can’t be sure what’s sticking, kind of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

At each new phase of my children’s lives I flash back to my own childhood and compare my own experiences to the ones I’m helping them create right now, especially my 4-year-old daughter. The fact that she is old enough to remember and, more importantly, hold me accountable for my parenting is terrifying. I think that’s the scariest part: being held accountable.

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The knowledge that my parenting is now going down in the history book of her brain is numbing sometimes. Parenting a baby is tough, to be sure, but the one saving grace is that the kid is so young she won’t remember all of your mistakes. The time you lost it and said the F-word then cried for two hours over your stretch marks? Gone with the wind. But now? Now my daughter is carefully observing everything I do and say. Not only do I have to be careful of what comes out of my mouth, but I can no longer phone it in by feigning interest in her artwork, or pretending to watch a cartoon with her while secretly reading blogs on my iPhone. Because she’s on to me.

As a result, I’ve had to up my parenting game or face the fact that she’ll spend the rest of my life reminding me of that one time when I did that one thing and what a horrible mother I am because of it.

So what will be her first memory, I wonder? My first memory is from the age of 3 so, chances are, at 4, Violet’s is already imprinted somewhere on her brain. The other day—apropos of nothing—she said, “Mom, remember when I threw up in the McDonald’s bag on the way to the lake? And Grandma was there too?"

The question hit me like a sock of pennies. The memory is accurate, it happened a full year ago when she was 3. We hadn’t discussed it after the fact so her pulling it out of thin air like that blew my mind. That’s a real memory right there. Not a memory of a conversation we had later about the incident but a bona fide memory.

I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m officially being held accountable for my parenting by the most important judge in the world: my 4-year-old.

Maybe that’s her first memory? It figures. Some kids remember catching fireflies at dusk, and my kid remembers puking into an old McDonald’s sack while riding in her car seat. It’s as good as any, I guess, although I admit I had hoped that maybe sitting on our porch swing with me during a rainstorm or strapped to dad’s back while he mowed the lawn might’ve been the first memory. But we can’t control these things, can we?

I remember 4 years old; my 4th birthday party, playing with my brother, my parents yelling, Cap’n Crunch tearing up the roof of my mouth at the breakfast table, moving to our new house, my dad being there and then not being there. I remember a lot. And now I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m officially being held accountable for my parenting by the most important judge in the world: my 4-year-old.

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It’s something I constantly remind myself of whenever I’m with her. Is this something 34-year-old Violet will remember? Sometimes it’s a good memory I’m creating for her but just as often I worry it’s a bad one. Was I too harsh with her there? Did I yell too loud? Am I doing it wrong?

It’s something all parents wonder, but, in dealing with our children now, it’s helpful to envision the adults they’ll be in the future and ask ourselves what kind of memories we’re creating for them.

What’s your first memory? Any idea what your children’s first memories are?

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