Almost as soon as our son was born, we received these words of advice from friends and family with older children. ‘Try and enjoy every minute of it, because the days may seem long but the years go by quickly.’
I took the advice to heart. I was in my 40s when I became a mother – time already seemed precious. My pregnancy was not easy. Severe complications in the third trimester forced my son to come into the world six weeks before his due date. So, by the time we brought our little 4 pound 9 ounce preemie home, I was determined to enjoy every minute with him.
I wanted to remember every precious detail—the smell of him, the little animal sounds he made in the early weeks, the first time he rolled over and all the other early milestones. I hoped that by cherishing these memories, I could slow down our time together so the years wouldn’t fly by so quickly.
Looking back, I was somewhat successful, but only for a brief moment.
For example, when she flashed her first spontaneous smile at my husband and me, it was as if the seconds stretched into minutes. I had the same experience the day he turned 2 months, when we bathed him, weighed him, and breathed a collective sigh of relief because he was no longer a skin-and-bones preemie, but a healthy, chubby baby. Then there was the time he army-crawled for the first time, elbow to elbow, out of his nursery, months before he learned to real crawl.
And yet, now that he’s almost 3 years old, I look back and think: How did those months and years go by so quickly? My baby is already a walking, talking, cranky toddler who tells stories and jokes? And the day he says “leave me alone,” or “give me space,” I can’t help but remember my sweet, darling baby.
The science behind sweet, in-the-moment ‘baby-time’
Is there a scientific explanation, I wondered, for this shared experience of in-the-moment baby-time? And why is it that even when we parents manage to slow down time in the moment, the years go by so fast?
It turns out, the researchers say, that it’s because our brain’s perception of time is fluid – depending on the types of experiences we have and how we perceive things in the moment.
“We don’t have a single notion of time,” says Peter Tse, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College. “We have the perception of time in the moment—perceptual time, you might call it. And then you have the relation to time you are looking at your memories.”
To make a lasting memory, pay attention
The brain perceives time based on how much information it is processing at any given moment, which in turn depends on what we are doing and what is happening around us. You are paying so much attention.
“If you’re paying attention, you’re actually objectively processing more units of information per unit of time,” Tse says. And this takes time subjectively longer.
This can happen when we are in a new place, absorbing all the little details around us. It can also happen when we are feeling emotionally charged.
“So, if you’re driving and you’re skidding and about to hit the rear of the car,” he explains, “it feels like it’s going in slow motion because suddenly your brain is processing a lot of information.” happens and you become completely attentive.”
This also applies to those happy, emotionally engaging moments we share with our children.
One recent morning, as I was walking my son to daycare, I noticed that the grass on the sidewalk and the field across the street were covered with the first frost of winter.
I was so excited to show my son that I forgot we were running late. We stopped so that he could touch and feel the thin silver flake of ice crystals on the grass and dry leaves beneath our feet. He was facing Paley for the first time and he was taken aback.
I don’t remember how long we stood there as he picked up leaf after leaf, gently touching the frost with his fingers, watching it melt, asking questions. But I do remember that, for me, everything else zoomed out, and I felt like time had stopped.
“In this kind of two-way conversation that we have with our children, they are very open to us,” says psychologist Ruth Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. And that means when you’re in them, you’re not thinking about anything else.”
So our brains are able to process a lot of information in those moments, forming new memories. Even now, when I think of that morning, I vividly remember the tiny icy needles on individual leaves of grass, the tip of my son’s index finger as the frost melted back into dewdrops, and the wonder in his eyes as he learned something new about the world around him.
But if parenting is full of these beautiful memory-making moments, then why, then, do our kids’ childhoods fade into the past so quickly?
Ogden explains, it has to do with the less fun part of parenting.
mix up your routine
“Parenting is full of routine, it’s full of organization. It’s full of — is there a better word — monotony.”
Consider the routine of caring for a newborn. “You spend a lot of time at home, you spend a lot of time trying to get them to go to sleep at the same time,” she explains.
It’s tedious, boring work that drives us parents into auto-pilot mode, because we’ve done it a hundred times before.
It’s work that doesn’t create new memories, says Tse.
Even if we were attentive and present during every diaper change, he explains, our brains would not register a new memory for each diaper change, or every step to daycare, because it would make them new. Not processing as events.
“In retrospect, it looks like they either didn’t happen or they get lumped together with all the other similar incidents,” he says. “So your sense of time is retroactively compressed.”
But one way to combat this, Ogden says, is by focusing less on routine, and more on creating those “beautiful, casual moments” with our kids.
She herself has been trying to incorporate new and different activities with her children.
“The more you break up the day with different activities or different things to do,” she says, “then you have more chance to make these good memories—the things you’re going to remember.” , things that are going to help diffuse your retrospective feelings on how the years went by.”
As I think more about the past few years with my son, I realize that the past year — 2022 — lasted longer than the two years before. And it’s probably because we intentionally broke away from some of our routines with her in order to have new experiences, and make new memories as a family.
We traveled with him across the United States as well as India – we took him to meet my family for the first time. My father, who lives in India, came to visit us for an extended period. So he can finally bond with this grandchild and share in the joys of walking him to daycare and back. We went camping in Maryland that summer – with my 79-year-old father and our 2-year-old – an adventure we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.
And as I write down these precious memories, I also realize that actively remembering and sharing them with my son can be just as important as he grows up and the years go by. Maybe it’s just another way to slow down time — and remind us all that childhood doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye.
This story is part of our periodic science series “Finding Time – A Journey Through the Fourth Dimension to Discover What We Must Do.”