Elephants Never Forget (And Neither Do My Kids)

It happened this morning, as it does most every week. My four-year-old daughters inadvertently reminded me just how much they remember (basically everything). We were driving to school, and Violet noticed a trailer hitched to a pickup truck. She said, “Oh, look at the little car!” to which I replied, “Yes, that’s a trailer.” The word caused something to click. Violet immediately said, “Oh yes, like the trailer we saw when we visited Grandma in Seattle,” to which my other daughter, Stella (also four, twins), responded, “A trailer is something you connect to your car that carries all your supplies.” They then took turns recounting all the things that were in the trailer they saw when they visited their grandparents back in April (a friend of the family was taking a cross-country adventure in an Airstream and was kind enough to give us a tour). This was the first time a trailer had come up since then. I had no idea they remembered it. Clearly, like most everything else they encounter, it had made an impression. A big one.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my twins (and I’ve learned a LOT) it’s that they don’t forget. They remember everything. From the physical details about how something looked, to the emotional details of how they felt about it. The emotional feelings, those stick the most. And that’s why I’ve realized just how careful I need to be about the memories I’m making.

When the girls were only about two years old, my husband and I got into an argument in front of them (not my proudest moment). He walked away, and I, unable to hold back, said something to the effect of “Daddy is stupid!” I immediately regretted it. Especially in the days and weeks that followed. Anytime my husband tried to do anything after that, Violet would look at me and say, “Daddy is stupid, right?” It took weeks to convince her otherwise. One emotionally charged moment had a lasting impact. Lucky for me, my husband is a saint and accepted my many apologies and over time, I made new memories to replace the old one. “Daddy is amazing! Daddy takes you to the park! Daddy makes sure you have milk! Daddy reads you stories and gives you kisses!” I made as many true, positive statements as I could to bury the one very untrue, negative one. And now, three years later I still worry that “Stupid Daddy” lingers on the horizon of their minds.

It’s not just what we say to them, or in front of them (though important note: keep your promises - they remember those the most). It’s how we behave. It’s what we do when we think that they’re not watching (i.e. checking my phone too much and working on my laptop when I should be playing). This Mother’s Day, my daughters each made me beautiful gifts at school. Stella wrote this message about me in hers:

“My mom’s name is Melody. She likes to have cuddles with me. She likes to also go to work. She always always always works super hard. She works on her computer. She also likes to play with me. I love my mom tons and tons and tons and tons and tons and tons and tons.”

I made a rule a long time ago as an entrepreneur who has the flexibility to set her work schedule and decide her workplace (I know - so lucky), that I would work at my office, and leave work out of the equation when I’m with my kids. I’m extremely proud of my work, and I love that my kids know what I do, how much it means to women, and how deeply I care about it. That being said, I don’t want them to inherit a legacy of constant multitasking, which is why I try to separate my time as a worker and a mother. Stella’s Mother’s Day note showed me what she sees, and is an indication of what she will remember. The gift of my undivided attention is what she and Violet deserve. It’s the gift we all deserve. And so I need to remember the boundary I set and spend a little less time with my laptop when the opportunity is there to spend a little more time with my kids.

In researching this post, I came across an incredibly insightful piece by Heather Turgeon called Kids and Memory: What Do Babies Remember? If you have a little one, or plan to, I urge you to read it, because the entire piece is well researched and fascinating (spoiler alert: babies remember a lot more than you would think, a lot earlier than you would think). Here’s what stood out for me:

“It's our emotional memory, the patterns of feelings and relationships—"am I safe, is the world a good place, do I have my people around me"—that matter. The brain's memory systems are deeply intertwined with its emotional circuits (which are strong right from birth), so much of what we learn early on is an emotional understanding of how the world works. The feelings around events are much more powerful than the events themselves.”

So as parents, we’re not going to be perfect. I can’t promise I won’t have another Stupid Daddy caliber outburst, or that I won’t fall into the black hole of my emails in front of my kids. I can though strive to make my kids feel safe each and every day, and remind them that the world is a good place with good people. I can show Daddy love and care so that they know what a healthy marriage looks like, and I can plan visits to Grandma and Grandpa in Seattle so they can see trailers, the Space Needle, Tulip Fields (yes we’ve seen all three!) and other new things. Because whether I like it or not, chances are they won’t forget a thing. I might as well make the memories worth carrying.

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