Freeze-Framing Happiness: A Father's Antidote To Parenting Nostalgia
It’s difficult to take a breath in the middle of all of the parenting chaos — but if we aren't able to tell when happy moments are unfolding, we risk missing them altogether.
I’ve spent a few days wanting to write something positive. Something like vignettes of happiness. It’s more challenging than, say, being critical or complaining. I am doing it as a sort of feat of the impossible: to perpetuate this internal sensation that we spend our lives looking for a rerun, though we know these are bubbles which burst, and, when and if they come around again, they come back in different ways, in a way that may be surprising or unexpected.
Why not? After all, I'm regularly relating a tender, loving scene about being a father on at least a daily basis to someone (usually my partner — and the kid’s mum — Irene).
I want to remember the moving things my eldest son Lorenzo, 4, says — and those little milestones achieved by my youngest León, 9 months — and writing seems to be the only way to be sure I won’t forget in the days and weeks to come.
Since I became a father — and since I don’t let some of you forget it — my entire life has practically become one of logging the children's milestones: first tooth, second tooth, first liquid poo, first solid poo, first smile, the daily smile, the first step… you get it.
Here are two of those Lorenzoisms that I loved — spontaneous things he said, without need for questions or conversation:
“Nacho… I love you until infinity, you know? Did you know?” he said one afternoon, insistent, while I was answering work emails.
“I don’t like it when my teacher shouts at me. It’s not kind, it’s not fair. I get bored… And when she shouts at my friends, I get sad.” This came out during storytime one evening, as we read a book together before bedtime.
León will probably be walking soon, around the same time that Lorenzo did, around ten months. For the last few weeks he has been pulling up to stand with the help of a chair or whatever else he finds around him.
It’s as if he is doing squats; lately he will stand up, and promptly drop to the ground, and repeat ad infinitum. He gets stronger every day and more stable, being able to stand for longer periods (before plopping down).
I love his tenacity, seeing how he tries and tries all day long, every day: I see the progress. To anyone else, he’s just a little baby who doesn’t know how to walk. But in those moments, I see León as a little optimistic fighter, who perseveres, who trusts in his future, who has hopes and goals, who keeps trying and doesn’t give up.
León’s tenacity keeps me going when I inevitably hit a daily frustration, such as not finishing everything I needed to in a week, or if I skip my daily physiotherapy exercises to deal with a chronic issue I have had in my foot these last four years.
A father reading a story to his child.
What you don't have
“We’ve got to really enjoy León; he might be our last baby,” Irene told me a few nights ago. I was struck by the perspective, since I’d only been considering it from the idea of having a third child or not.
It’s a fault to always be looking at what you don’t have or what is lacking, rather than what is right there in front of your eyes: two beautiful kids.
Intensity of daily life
The last month has been intense. After five years of trying, I finally got Italian citizenship. Essentially, it gives us more flexibility when deciding our future. At the same time, Irene has not been well (and it’s cause for celebration that she thus decided to take care of her health for once.)
With the intensity of daily life, sometimes it’s difficult to see the glass half full.
A friend stayed with us for almost a month, falling in love with Lorenzo and León, and seeing for the first time the challenges that life with children presented; he said he could never have imagined what it meant. It was beautiful for us to be able to open up the doors to our family to his love and care.
With the intensity of daily life, sometimes it’s difficult to see the glass half full. A dirty bathroom might overshadow the joys of a breakfast shared. And it’s the latter which is a memory I’ll cherish a year from now, rather than when the kids were unwell and we all spent a week sick at home.
Splashes of life
I often think about jotting those moments down. I am not talking about an all-encompassing happiness. As I said, I mean vignettes. These are splashes of life which we are hit with everyday, and which I want to embrace — rather than being distracted and having these moments slip away. I think of Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg’s essay "Winter in Abruzzo" (1970), when she masterfully describes the isolation and weight that she felt about living in exile with her family, having escaped the fascists.
It’s the opening story in her collection The Little Virtues, and of the life she spent in a rural area where “there were only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter”. It felt like life shut down, at least in contrast to a colossal mega-city like Rome, or the vibrant, intellectual life Turin offered. Ginzburg and her family were not in a place where life-and-death decisions were made, but rather where her exile was firmly in the margins.
In "Winter in Abruzzo", Ginzburg and her husband take a stroll every evening: “Every evening my husband and I went for a walk: every evening we walked arm in arm, sinking our feet into the snow”. They awaited the end of the Second World War, and to be able to return home. But life had other plans:
“My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us — to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever — only now do I realize it.”
A walk in the snow
Happiness is what can happen
It’s difficult to take a breath in the middle of all of the chaos: the fears of fatherhood — about the family but also the impact on the relationship between a couple; the fear related to work, and the instability around it — especially when you’re a freelance couple operating in an exhausting system; life which goes on, the years which pass, the reminders of what health means (and in the last few weeks, unusually we have all been sick at the same time: as a youngster, fever would only ever knock me down for a couple of days at most before I could spring back out of bed).
What will I remember in a decade’s time?
“When we die will there still be people? Does life ever stop?” asks Lorenzo one night before bedtime (these nocturnal chats are the best part of my day; when Lorenzo announces every evening, “I want to go to sleep with papá”).
Sometimes life is just about getting on with whatever is thrown in our way, right? The waves are there in the sea, and will always be there; you just have to be strong, and overcome the necessary falls, to be able to learn to surf them. Like León, who is walking every day a little bit better than the day before, I like challenges.
Happiness is what can happen — or what is about to happen — while we try not to let ourselves get so overwhelmed. I don’t want to lose these windows of happiness, because I am afraid of losing my job, or because I am tired because I raise children, in a system which does not contribute to the healthy development of families.
The fatigue will pass, I am sure of it. And the happiness too. What will I remember in a decade’s time? Will it be of the months of exhaustion, or Lorenzo’s antics, and León’s little smiles?
I can still feel the hug that Lorenzo gave us when Argentina won the World Cup. It is difficult to explain how beautiful it is to see León, at least once a day, having one of his giggling fits. Maybe only those who’ve ever experienced a baby laughing out loud will get this.
We’ll see what it is I’ll remember about now. But I am certain that I don’t want these to become the happy years which I didn’t know how to see, appreciate, and enjoy while living them.
I don’t want what happened to Natalia Ginzburg happening to me. She only realized through her nostalgia for what was lost — and its tragedy — that the pain she lived in this parenthesis of her exile wasn’t the worst thing to happen to her, not by a long shot. The story is like life, of what fuel is like when added to the fire; you thought exile was bad? Well, how about it simply being your husband’s final days, and that you had to just enjoy that then?
With all due respect, I don’t want happening to me what seems to have happened in essence to the writer, if at least not relatable by context. It seems that the years had to pass, tragedies had to happen, for her to remember the years before, when life was indeed light, when all was more innocent… I don’t want to have been so distracted that I ignored those breezes of happiness running through our home, worried by all the things that you can still keep worrying about tomorrow. And again, probably I am just describing life as it is for everyone.
I feel like writing about those daily moments of happiness here and in my personal diary is a way of giving them more space and importance. I confess I am a little ashamed to publish this newsletter, but I think reading these notes in ten years will make me happy. If this was the best era of my life, I don’t want to wake up one day and realize that I missed it.
- Happy Cow? The Murky Science Of Measuring Bovine Happiness ›
- Poland, Where Happiness Goes To Die ›
- Overcoming The Fear Of Fleeting Happiness ›
- The Real Reason Men Don't Take Care Of Their Health - Worldcrunch ›