I deleted the photos, and put the phone down: letting go of nostalgia for the future

Guest post by Teeny and the Bee
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I recently tried to sync my phone and couldn’t because it was too full. I couldn’t even update my podcasts because of all the pictures and videos taking up space — so I had to pare down. I opened my laptop and plugged my phone in so I could save everything in iPhoto, and then stared at my phone. Deciding which photos and videos to save and which to delete was a challenge: what if I had a few minutes on the subway and wanted to look at pictures from a few years ago? I wasn’t ready.

It took me two days to start going through everything, and I had more than 2300 pictures and videos of my daughters. I went through every single one of them. My partner Johnny and I spent hours laughing and remembering how tiny our daughters once were. We oohed and ahhed over pictures of me pregnant, and pictures of our daughters as newborns. And then I did it: I deleted the photos, and put the phone down.

I’m involved in a Book Club with a few co-workers. We usually read books about management and leadership, and meet every week or so to talk about them. We recently read Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. There was a passage (found on page 203) that really struck me:

“For many of us, the happiest future is one that’s precisely like the past, except a little bit better.”

Reading this on the subway a couple weeks ago, I was suddenly wide awake. I sat up and whipped out my yellow highlighter.

“We’re good at visualizing this future, and if we think it’s not going to happen, we get nostalgic for it. This isn’t positive visualization, it’s attachment of the worst sort. We’re attached to an outcome, often one we can’t control.”

I swallowed hard. This described me at my very worst. I thought of the many times in my life I had been completely undone by nostalgia for the future. Like the time I was dumped by a boyfriend I now refer to as “the meathead.” For so many reasons, this guy was not the one for me, but he broke up with me first and I was heartbroken. All I could think about was that honeymoon phase when he could do no wrong. Back then we had so much potential. In our early days, we’d fantasized aloud about marriage, kids, a home and a life together. A year later and we were done with each other, but I could not get past the fact that we once both thought we were in love. Why aren’t we like this anymore? I asked myself over and over. Why can’t we fix it? I’ll work harder. We were there. Don’t leave me — I know we can get back there! It was just so hard to let go of the future I had envisioned with him, even if I knew it couldn’t ever happen.

When I was pregnant with one of my daughters, who I’ll call T, I assumed I was carrying a normal, healthy baby girl. She looked perfect when she was born (and still does). When she was less than a day old, I held her in my arms and talked to her — like I did her sister. I told her how much we wanted her, how loved she was, how her whole life was ahead of her. I read to her from my favorite books and dreamed of all she would do and see and become.

“If you had a chance to remake your life with a wish, what would you wish for?”

I wish that my daughter didn’t have cerebellar hypoplasia. I wish she had a normally developed cerebellum and pons, like everyone else. I wish she could walk and talk like other toddlers. I wish that at barely nineteen months of age she didn’t have the busiest schedule in the family with occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapies every day.

If I could remake my life with one wish… I can’t even complete that sentence.

“The stressful part is the hoping. Hoping against hope that your plane will arrive, that you won’t miss it, that your seat won’t be given away, that you won’t crash, that you’ll land close to on time. Hoping that the surgery will turn out okay. Hoping that your boss won’t yell at you. All of this is nerve-wracking for many people.”

Do you ever do this? It is so me. Running late for work, I am sweating bullets, pulling at my hair, squirming in my seat on the subway. I have a half-hour train ride, and bouncing up and down like a four-year-old needing to pee isn’t going to change the fact that it is still a half-hour ride. I can’t possibly get there any faster. I may as well relax and listen to music, read my book, review my notes for the meetings I have that day, or just close my eyes and enjoy my commute. But no. I am twisted in knots, driving myself crazy, worked up into a frenzy, as if this self-torture will exonerate me from my tardiness. It’s insanity.

“And the reason is your nostalgia for the future. You’ve fallen in love with a described outcome, and at every stage along the way, it appears that hope and will and effort on your part might be able to maintain the status quo.”

Boom. Propelled forward by this notion that if I just hope it hard enough, will it hard enough and put enough effort into her recovery, I have been trying to “fix” my daughter.

It’s been a long six months since the MRI revealed what it did, changing our lives forever. I am still sad. Looking at her newborn pictures, unable to delete them, I thought about how little I knew then. If only I knew then what I know now, I’d… what? What, indeed? I have no reason to feel any differently now. She puckers up and leans in for kisses now. They are wet and sloppy but they are delicious. I can hear her voice in my head: Mama, I need you now. Stop trying to fix everything. I’m here now. Enjoy me now. Love me now.

So I am letting go of my nostalgia for the future. I know grief is a normal part of the process, but enough is enough. I don’t want to be crippled by what will never happen and what might never have happened anyway. I know deep down that the future I envisioned holding my newborns is as unlikely to happen for one daughter as much as it is the other — just because nothing ever works out exactly the way you think it will. And what more do I really know, anyway?

I know that so far, parenting has taught me that I have control over absolutely nothing. What I can do is focus on what needs to be changed in myself instead.

This morning, I had a few rare moments with T all to myself. I sat on the floor and held her in a standing position by her hips while she and I stuck out our tongues and blew raspberries. We laughed together until her legs buckled and she put her arms out for me to hold her. I held her tight and she held me tighter. “Mamamamamama,” she murmured. I breathed her in and felt present with her in the moment, just holding her and loving her for who she is right now.

So maybe it’s safe to delete some of these pictures. I want to make space for new ones anyway.

Comments on I deleted the photos, and put the phone down: letting go of nostalgia for the future

  1. Letting go of my nostalgia for a particular outcome has made me such a happier parent. It has a way of sneaking back in when I’m not paying attention, and then I have to start taming it all over. But my happiest moments are when I’ve let go of some desired timeline of events and outcomes and take reality at face value.

    • Thanks so much, Rod. I am still getting used to it all. It’s a hard lesson for me to learn but I’m getting there. You’re so right – it does sneak back in, doesn’t it? I like how you call what you do “taming” that way of thinking. I can see it in a way that doesn’t feel so oppressive now.

  2. I think this could apply to many scenarios. For one, my son has significant medical issues and it’s possible he will be on a feeding tube for the rest of his life. You can imagine what this makes me wish for his future.
    Also, I think this applies to my current “baby fever”. For many reasons, another baby is just not in the cards for us. Rationally knowing this does nothing to dispel my “what if” and “what would it be like” nostalgia for the imaginative future.
    So I guess I’m still learning to “tame” (to steal a previous posters word) my nostalgia.

  3. My son was born 6 months ago, unexpectedly missing part of his cerebellum, and your post captures a lot of what I’ve been thinking about since he arrived. The need to let go of any preconceived notions of what my parenting experience will be like, the life my child might live, all of it. Will he ever walk, or talk? Not be dependent on a feeding tube? Go to college? Live independently? There is an overwhelming world of what ifs to live in. A universe of nostalgia that may never be. Letting go and embracing the adventure, trying to stay present for hardships and immense victories, it’s the only way to have a life worth living. Thank you for sharing.

    • Ayah, thank you so much. I share your same worries. You are not alone. Please email me at [email protected] and I can connect you to some of the resources I have found for parents of children with cerebellar hypoplasia and other cerebellar malformations. Hang in there. I won’t say it gets easier, but you get more used to it.

  4. I can’t even tell you how perfect the timing is for me to see this post. Our ten week old daughter was recently diagnosed with a rare chromosomal disorder, completely shaking our idea of what her future could hold and leaving us with a long road of not knowing what will happen at each stage of her life. we will also likely be facing physical/occupational/speech therapies and already wonder how that will all impact her and us as a family. I have already accepted that we can’t expect that her life path will look the same as her older sister, and I know that the truth is that we can’t ever know what lies in store for either of our girls. It feels comforting to know of others going thru a similar situation and having to leave behind our nostalgia for what was and could be. our appreciation of the here and now has already increased tenfold… that’s all we’ve ever really got, after all.

    • Ellbeemama, I typed out a whole long response that I somehow deleted but the gist was that I wanted to reach through the computer and hug you. I relate on so many levels, especially with having an older daughter who is developing typically on top of having a new baby with a horrible diagnosis. It’s so, so hard. But you’re right. The present is all we’ve ever got anyway, and my Teeny is so happy right now. That counts for a lot.

  5. “Running late for work, I am sweating bullets, pulling at my hair, squirming in my seat on the subway… I am twisted in knots, driving myself crazy, worked up into a frenzy, as if this self-torture will exonerate me from my tardiness.”

    I had a revelation regarding this phenomenon at a stoplight on my way to work a few years ago. I was sitting there sweating and urging the light to change, and I reflected that years from now, I would never remember waiting for that light to change, and it would cease to be important the second it happened, so why allow it to have such all-consuming importance in my life for even a minute? (Okay, and ironically of course I do still remember waiting for that light to change, because of the ah-ha moment that went with it.)

    • Amy, thanks for sharing your experience. That kind of sweating and urging the light to change behavior was sheer madness for me and I too remember when it occurred to me that it wasn’t going to get me anywhere faster except an early grave. It’s really mind-blowing, isn’t it, and it should be so simple! <3

  6. This is a very buddhist philosophy… but explained in a way I understand a lot better. It’s hard work letting go though.

    Very well written article. I wish you guys all the best in your future. It will be different but it will be good. And keep in mind that grief will circle back around and knock you for six when you don’t expect it. Grief over losing a future you envisioned for you and your loved ones is circular, not linear. And that’s ok too. Just make some space for it and carry on.

    You’re doing great 🙂 <3

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