On the passage of bathtime

There’s a quote I discovered floating around Instagram Reels that people use as narration for clips of their little kids:

You have little kids for four years. And if you miss it, it’s done. That’s it. So, you gotta know that. Lots of things in life you don’t get to do more than once. That period between 0 and 4, 0 and 5, there’s something about it that’s like a peak experience in life. It isn’t much of your life. Four years goes by so fast, you can’t believe it. And if you miss it, it’s gone. So you miss it at your peril, and you don’t get it back.

(I was surprised to learn the speaker is Jordan Peterson, whom I’ve never read or even heard speak before. Not interested in litigating Peterson as a whole, just taking this quote for what it’s worth.)

I was talking with an older coworker about kids and how mine recently turned 4. His are all grown now, he said, but he would do anything to have just one day when they were 4 again, to do bathtime and all the other kid things that fill your life so intensely for a few years before the kids grow into other phases.

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard often, usually in the form of parenting clichés like “The days are long but the years are short” and “They’re only young once.” The annoying thing about clichés is that they’re usually both trite and true, and I’m grateful for when they tap me on the shoulder at just the right time.

A recent example: I was sitting with my 4 year old playing with his Carry Around Robot Town as (who else?) The Okee Dokee Brothers were on in the background—this time their 2018 album Winterland. He was immersed enough in the game that he actually let the album play through instead of wanting to jump to his favorite tracks, and that allowed me to enjoy some of their quieter, more reflective songs he’s usually not interested in.

We got near the end when on came “New Year,” a beautiful tune in the form of notes back and forth between two friends inquiring about their lives and children.

Here’s the lyrical exchange:

Hey say, Happy New Year
Have you had much snow
And how’s that new baby boy of yours, Joe

Happy New Year to you
The snow’s still deep
And he’s our little roly-poly
I sing him to sleep

Say how’s the weather
Have you had much rain
And can that new baby sing your refrain

The weather’s changing
It feels like spring
And as he falls asleep
We can hear him sing

Have the leaves changed
Where does the time go
And now how old is that son of yours, Joe

Leaves blow away
Time goes on
He’s all grown up now,
singing this song

Perhaps you can now see why the combination of this song and the moment—cozied up next to that son of mine while he cutely played—made me tear up: I envisioned the time that has already passed in my life with him and how in a snap more time will pass and he’ll be all grown up and singing his own songs, only I won’t be cozied up next to him.

It was a moment of mono no aware, a Japanese phrase I love that indicates “the awareness of impermanence or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”

That concept cuts both ways. Everything in this stage—and in life—is impermanent: the good moments, the hard times, the drudgery, the occasional euphoria. “Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Robert Frost. And that’s why it’s so important to love them at the age they are and every year they grow, because they’ll never be that age again.

There is one workaround for this: have another child. Our second is due in late May, so I’ll get another chance to start at zero and bask in this unique time once again. And you better believe I’ll be working extra hard to enjoy bathtimes while they last.