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childhood is fleeting, motherhood is forever by elin stebbins waldal

My conversation with Elin Stebbins Waldal about her book, Tornado Warning, struck a chord with many of you, who sent emails thanking me for bringing to light the subject of dating violence and thanking her for sharing her very personal story. Because her voice resonated so strongly, I invited her to write a guest post. I know this essay is one you’ll relate to, too.

I had no inkling, the first time I learned I was pregnant, of the combination of awe and regret that motherhood would stitch into my soul. But now, at 23, my firstborn has eclipsed the age I was when I gave birth to him, and I find myself marveling over the realization that I have been a mother for more than half my life.

Lately it seems as if my future is destined to be haunted by reflections, small vignettes from the past — some happy, some not — each determined to wave their hand and be seen. They come out of nowhere — these visions — occupying my mind while I drive, walk, or run. They vacillate between the utter despondence and pure magic that have comprised motherhood for me.

Curled up in the bed where he was born, I watched him, with all my dreams for his future bursting from my heart. Max, with his sock hat on, playing with his tongue and making the tiniest “o” shape with his mouth. I didn’t sleep a wink for fear of missing even the most miniscule change.

My wee hour whisperings were a vow to love, protect, cherish and keep him from harm — all unending devotions bestowed upon my baby in the first hours as his mother.

Who will you be? I am your Mom!

I was mesmerized by the miracle of having birthed a human being.  I couldn’t, in that moment, conceive of what would later manifest as the impatience of motherhood.

But, as years unfolded in the day-in and day-out grind that comes with raising children, there were times I felt there was no end in sight to the changing of diapers and redirection of behavior.

Then one day they were gone — the baby, toddler, elementary school ages and stages were behind us, dangling in the air as a tail on a kite, joyous and left to forever dance with the wind.

Last night, when we went out to dinner, my eyes lighted on the chubby-cheeked toothless grin of a blue-eyed baby sitting two tables away. I felt that sting of unsolicited tears threaten to leach. I leaned forward and asked my husband, “Do you ever want to walk up to the parents of young children and whisper in their ear, Don’t just mark time; you will have these babies but for a season of your life. I promise you it passes in a blink of an eye. Do you ever think that?”

He nodded, and his eyes darted to our son before returning to mine. “I can not believe we are looking at colleges for Kodiak…”

I quietly agreed, also sneaking a peek at our son — our boy –on the brink of joining his brother in manhood. He is within arm’s reach of walking out of our home into his next life chapter beyond our daily vigilance.

Kodiak was born at the base of a ski resort in the valley of Vail, Colorado, at an altitude of 8,160 feet above sea level. Unlike the siblings who bookend him, he was in no hurry to make his entrance. When he finally did, his first stroke in the waters of independence were exhibited within moments of his first breath.

All babies born in Vail are immediately given oxygen. We held our own breaths as his little fist unhesitatingly reached up and yanked the tiny oxygen mask from his face. His first unspoken message was effectively delivered: I can breathe on my own!

And, in that moment, we exhaled.

My last baby followed 20 months later. She was in a hurry, practically delivered in a moving vehicle. Chandler.

And now we were thinking of college. The thought – the disappearance of my babies’ childhoods – followed me last night from the restaurant to Chandler’s piano recital, and is now planted like a looming tree.

Did I even feel myself blink?

Regrets dance in the shadows and I see them as if they are lining up — the bleary-eyed, drawn-out good night kisses, the tricks I employed to distract a three-year-old Max when leaving him at preschool. “Show me the classroom bunny,” I had said with enthusiasm so I could hop skip and jump away, leaving a boy with a rabbit in his hands and disappointment stretched across his heart.

Alongside regret, I see myself nestled in bed with each of my children, reading, swimming, blowing bubbles, baking, discovering museums from Denver to San Diego, building sandcastles, creating art projects, spending summers on Whidbey Island.

Last night at the recital, I put my arm around Kodiak and felt my heart quicken as he leaned, for just a moment, into me. I hugged him from the side and marveled at his unabashed love for me.

There is the awe.

I woke early this morning from a dream that was still so vivid. In it, I whispered to the parents of the chubby cheeked baby, Don’t just mark time; you will have your baby but for a season of your life. I promise you it passes in a blink of an eye.


  1. Beautiful Elin. I can relate completely! My sons are 29 and 27 and we have continue to have a loving relationship, although not as frequent contact as I would like. But oh I have moments of remorse about when I was impatient etc. I need to keep in the forefront of my brain that they are wonderful, caring human beings and I did the best I could.

  2. Toni Tester says:

    Beautifully written, Elin! As the mother of one 32 year old daughter and grandmother of one five year old girly girl it is difficult to describe how quickly time passes and wishes that we might have done a few things in a different fashion. We need to embrace the moments as they happen!

  3. Hilary Patton says:

    Elin, you have beautifully captured what we (as mothers) all feel. Motherhood is such a shared experience, and yet it can feel so unique at times that I think I’m the only woman in the world who feels “this way.” With each recital, each holiday, each milestone, I am keenly aware of how many years we have left as a family with our daughter at home. I cling to my memories of her as a child and it reassures me that I’ll someday cling to the memories of her as a teenager-albeit these days she moves so fast they are hard to capture. Please keep sharing your memories and thoughts on motherhood!

  4. Parents, such as Elin and her husband, who are present with their children and are conscious of the finite and enduring moment, create the presence of a loving and stable foundation for their home.

  5. Sigh* My husband and I are getting ready to send off child #1 to college. It is a difficult transition for us to send our child out in to the wild world, and each day I feel him slipping away. I will miss him more than I can possibly say and only in a way that a mother can understand. They are only ours for a short while. LIVE WITH NO REGRETS, love with all your heart, and smile and be proud when they leave because you helped create the wonderful person that they are.

  6. Simply beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes.

  7. As I await my first grandbaby, this made me remember life with my grown son. So sweet.

  8. This is a lovely piece, Elin, and so many of your memories resonate with me. My three ‘children’ are all grown, and loving and wonderful people, but grown. You strike a very delicate (and very difficult) balance between elegiac and appreciative, without falling into actual sadness. Well done. We were good mothers.

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