I started writing to my baby before I knew him. Before I knew he was a him. “Dear baby,” I began, awkwardly, like you do in any new relationship. I wrote for myself, an attempt to bond with the unknown person I was to bring into the world. But I also wrote for him, conscious even then that it was my responsibility to chronicle his early life so that he could one day, should he so desire, get a sense of his beginnings.
I wanted my baby to know how intensely loved he was right from the get-go should he ever have a moment as an adult when he might – God forbid – doubt his worth.
My intentions were sincere. But as happens with so many of us in the demands of new motherhood, I dropped the ball. I took a thousand photos on my iPhone (none framed) – first smile, first word, first steps caught on video. But that was it. No baby books, no footprints in clay, no email messages sent to his own email account.
I was even more slack when his brother came along. There was barely time to shower, let alone document their days. So I let it be. But I was left with an uneasy panic that my boys’ lives were rapidly unfolding with nothing to show for them. What would be the point of any of it, if it wasn’t put on record?
Perhaps it’s the journalist in me. I did, after all, write letters to myself as a child to open 10 years later: “Dear Jacinta, are you in love yet?”
But now, as a mother, the stakes are higher. Because it’s not just about me.
Our children disappear. The little people before us will never again be as they are in this moment. They each evolve before our eyes, it seems, into someone who won’t need us any more.
I have an insatiable desire to grab hold of each moment to halt time. To not let it slip past unappreciated, a blur known to my boys only as “childhood”, made up of vague recollections.
They’re fine with the idea of growth. A fresh notch on the giraffe measuring chart – a race to read, add up and say what they mean. They count down sleeps until birthdays, and pontificate on what they’ll be when they grow up. “An air traffic control tower guy,” insists my youngest, begging me to cut off his curls. Adulthood is an alluring goal. But we know better.
And so, after a long hiatus, I write again. No great expectations, just brief notes thumb-typed in my iPhone before sleep, a snapshot summary of their days. Bombing off the jetty after school. Playing “guess the animal” in the car. Rumbling on the trampoline. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the book and movie. Batman pyjamas. The first lost tooth, swallowed whole.
It’s not just about record-keeping. It’s about happiness.
“Happy people don’t have more pleasant experiences than unhappy people,” writes Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project. “But they remember them better.”
Rubin prescribes a manageable sentence-a-day diary. I usually exceed a sentence and I might skip a day, but gradually I’m collating a substantial time-capsule of memories.
I include things that will amuse my boys when they’re older: that they call lamb chops “chops with handles”, they jump in “muddy cuddles” and the youngest’s imaginary friend, Mr Nobody.
And, also, anecdotes that might explain the initial stirrings of the men they’re becoming, allowing them to join the dots. To see where predilections took root. My seven-year-old’s trumpet obsession and dance moves. His love of Passenger and books and Lego. The plane he’s designed.
“That’s what I do,” he says, when I thank him for comforting his brother. “When people are sad, I look after them.” He coins the phrase “sad as a dry frog”.
His six-year-old brother gives “giraffe cuddles” (entwining his neck around mine) and tells me I can come to his house for a sleepover when he’s a grown up. Their drawings (emergency vehicles, usually) blow my mind. It might take them decades to appreciate this dossier. But compiling it is doing me the world of good.