The elderly woman wrapped a warm thin hand around my forearm and leant in close. At first I thought she had stopped to steady herself as she shuffled down the long aisle at Broadway Coles. But with a smile on her lips, she leaned in so our faces nearly touched and said: “These are the best years of your life. They will go quickly. Cherish them. Don’t have regrets.”
She gently patted the sling that held the 12-week-old bundle snugged softly against my sore, leaking breasts, nodded firmly and walked away.
It was the first of many times over the following decade that I would be stopped by a stranger and given the same advice. But I’ll never forget that first old lady, because at the time her warning bemused me. “The best years of my life.” Seriously?
I was 21 years old and had found myself 1,000 kilometres away from family and friends, unexpectedly navigating parenthood, university study and work. I wanted to arrogantly scoff “I’m educated, I have ambition, I haven’t slept in two months, I sing nursery rhymes 18 hours a day and I accidentally left the house in my pyjama bottoms this morning – surely this is not as good as it gets!”
But time makes fools of us all. Flip forward 13 years and I’ve just sat down at my desk after seeing my fourth and last child off to her first day of school. It’s the end of an era; a great big chunk of my 33 years of living ends today. And the old lady at Coles was goddamn right.
In the years between then and now, I carried four wonderful people, nurtured them, saw their characters develop, independence blossom, talents emerge, vulnerability morph into resilience and ideas become beliefs and opinions.
There have also been countless career opportunities passed up. Jobs I’ve stepped away from so my husband could step up to his, without removing both parents from the household from 7am to 7pm. Press releases written with newborns at my breast and toddlers under my desk.
Brainstorms punctuated by nappy changes and playtime. Potential clients turned down because there simply weren’t the hours in the day to give them, and my family, the attention they deserved. And I wondered, hoped, prayed I wouldn’t come out of that period with regrets.
Years later, and the little bundle that lay in the sling that morning at Coles will become a teenager this year, and begin high school next year. I try to conjure her voice at age two; the pitch, the tone, the divine mispronunciations. Those little things slip through our consciousness and become tiny memory fragments we will never feel, hear or smell again.
And so today, no regrets. Sure, I could have earned a bit more money. Could have chased bigger fishes. But the times when I tasted that life – missed class presentations, half-cooked meals at 8pm, holidays spent stressing over poor internet connection and missed emails, fights with the husband and kids who fell asleep on the hardwood office floor at night, waiting for me to finish work so I could spend time with them, made me realise I didn’t want what came with it. So like many other women, I down-scaled my career just as it was taking off. Because I knew I could never go back and do this ‘mother’ thing again.