How to make memories

Back in the fall, I read “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” by Joshua Foer. Foer writes about his efforts to improve his memory, and he eventual works his way to the U.S. Memory Championship. I have no interest in trying to remember strings of names or numbers, but I was fascinated by the research on how we create memories.

Unique moments stick in our brains, which is why childhood feels so long. Everything is new. Your brain is working hard to make those moments adhere so that you will have them for future use, and it uses other memories to place those moments in time. So you remember that you learned to ride a bike right before you started kindergarten and that your best friend moved away after you started kindergarten.

As we get older, much of our time is spent repeating familiar activities. We can’t distinguish one lunch from the next, one day of school from the next. The brain essentially says “I already know all about this. No need to remember it.” We are on auto-pilot for familiar activities. This is how you end up driving yourself home from work and can’t remember steering and braking.

When something new or unusual happens, your brain is still ready to work, and it still wants to attach that memory to other memories. But if nothing exciting has happened in a year, your brain has a hard time placing that new memory.

Reading this book jostled me out of a rut. When you have a baby or young child, strangers are constantly telling you to “enjoy it” because it goes so fast. This sometimes infuriates me. Yes, I know it goes quickly. I’m trying to enjoy it, but you, Dear Stranger, are making me panic. I can’t slow time.

According to research, I can make my life more memorable, though, which will make it seem longer. Time goes quickly when we have young children, I think, because we are stuck with the routine. We must follow the nap schedule and the feeding schedule, and a few days after we bring a baby home from the hospital, we are baking a first birthday cake.

Obviously we can’t spend all of our time gallivanting across the country or even the city. But I think that our family has become really lax about doing new things. We tend to spend our weekends at home, taking the kids on bike rides or to the park. It’s a great (and cheap!) way to spend time. The weekends all blend together though. We had two full weeks together at Christmas, and we spent the entire time at home. Just a few months later, I barely remember it. I told Greg that we had to do something new at spring break.

We went to San Francisco last weekend, and though it would have been far easier and cheaper to stay home, we will definitely remember those few days. We visited museums and rode a cable car and walked on the Golden Gate Bridge. We ate sourdough. Also, Henry got a black eye. And we endured a ride on a city bus with a road-raging driver. In the end, he literally broke the bus. We were okay. Afterward, it was all Eleanor would talk about. Ah, memories.

I guess my point is that when you travel with kids or do anything outside of your comfort zone, things will go wrong. Assuming everyone is okay though, even those scary memories are probably better than none at all.

Golden Gate

Let children dabble

There’s a “Let Children Fail” movement growing. The idea is that parents nowadays, particularly upper-middle class parents, refuse to let their children fail. Parents run the forgotten homework to school. They finish the science project after their child goes to bed. Childhood is supposed to be the time for failing, the time when failure carries less weight than it does in adulthood. I’m onboard with that.

I’d like to start another movement. I’m calling it the “Let Children Dabble” movement.

Eleanor turns six today, which among other things, means that she will move up to a higher gymnastics class. This is when children start to be divided into the competitors and the left-behinds. The competitive group has multiple practices each week, though the kids will not compete for a few more years. The rest of the students continue taking an hour-long class each week. You can see the difference in the groups. The competitive children tend to be petite and get more rigorous training. The others are often tall or less coordinated and are doing gymnastics only slightly more difficult than what Eleanor does now.

The gymnastics school selects the students for the competitive group. I think this is based largely on how many classes a student has been taking per week so seems partly a contest of how much money and time parents can spend. I could probably enroll Eleanor in two or three classes each week and get her moved into the competitive group. I hesitate.

I don’t like that my daughter is about to be left behind. Gymnastics is one of the few sports she really likes, and given her tiny proportions, it’s a good fit for her. We’re not aiming for the Olympics. I just want her to have a chance at being good, at being able to join a gymnastics team in middle school or high school if she wants. That’s a choice that we have to make now — in kindergarten.

In talking with my friends, this has become the norm for sports. I know of 6- and 7-year-olds who spend six or eight hours a week swimming or dancing. They are already on competitive teams. There is no time to dabble.

Kids used to be divided by ability in middle school or high school, which meant the best and worst were on the same teams for years. The best were a motivation for those beneath them, and everyone received the same training. Now kids — or, more likely, their parents — commit to all or nothing in early elementary school. I don’t know how we got to this point. I suppose a few parents got to this point, and the rest of us felt we had to follow.

I would like for Eleanor to try out different activities, to succeed and to fail, and to learn about herself in the process. I would like for her to have a childhood, to not be expected to commit the way an adult would. She doesn’t care about college scholarships. She’s a 6-year-old who wants to do a backflip.


Rethinking baby showers

The first time I met with a therapist after Genevieve’s death, she told me to make a list of the steps I wanted to take to start leading a normal life again. Some of my early goals were: feel comfortable leaving my house and be happy for other people who have good news. I started therapy four months after Genevieve died, and even though I was leaving my house, I didn’t want to be. Every trip to the grocery store came with the possibility that I would see a happy pregnant lady or a newborn. Either of those things would leave me crying for the rest of the day.

As for being happy for my friends, that took much longer than I expected. I could not accept that good things kept happening to other people when my life had collapsed. It took me years to recover my generosity. I don’t think I really celebrated for anyone until Henry was born. Let’s all give thanks that he is here so that I no longer have to live as an evil troll (even though I totally earned that right).

My long-term goals, things that I wanted to accomplish in six to twelve months, were: be okay around babies and be emotionally ready to have another baby myself. I did start seeing friends who had babies, though I didn’t want to initially. And I was certainly ready for a baby. Going through that next pregnancy would be sheer terror no matter how long I waited.

One goal that I didn’t put on my list was to attend a baby shower. I swore off baby showers after Genevieve. Really, I wanted to avoid baby showers until my own children had kids. I couldn’t stomach the hope, people assuming that they would bring home a baby. And what could I say at such a party? Shower conversations inevitably turn to labor stories or memories of colicky newborns. And if your baby was born breathing, your labor doesn’t sound that bad to me. I imagined speaking up — ruining the party. Or, more likely, I would say nothing and then spend days fuming about the unfairness of it all.

Some friends of mine wanted to throw a shower after Henry was born, and I agreed. It was lovely. Everyone knew my story, so no pretending was required.

Now one of those friends who threw my shower is about to have a baby, and I am invited to the shower. I am going, and I bought the baby gift without tears. I didn’t even think of crying. I continue to be amazed at the way time can change me. Where once I saw pregnancy as a minefield, I now know that is true for only an unlucky few. (There are a lot of us, but statistically we are few.) And if everyone at that shower doesn’t know what I have been through, that’s okay. That is no betrayal of Genevieve. I know that I’m her mom.

I still get messages from mothers who have just gone through a stillbirth, and all I can say is keep going, keep going, keep going. Eventually, some of that dark space is going to fill with joy, enough joy that you will even be able to share it with others.