Playing ‘Memory Keeper’ for your kids is a sad and lonely job

My two-year-old daughter and I are onboard a vintage locomotive, watching as a baby deer leaps in and out of the desert brush next to us. The sun is setting behind the hazy blue mountains as the wind whips through the open train car. We’re on our way to star gaze through high-powered telescopes on a stretch of Nevada desert known for being one of the darkest places on the planet. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s one I’m sure I’ll remember forever. 

My daughter, on the other hand, will be lucky if she still remembers this trip six months from now. More than likely, this day, like every day of her early childhood, will slip into a mysterious void in her head, wiped clean by what the experts call “childhood amnesia.” 

It never occurred to me before becoming a mom that I’d have to play the role of Memory Keeper. I never predicted the pressure I’d feel to catalog every important moment of my child’s life—every first step, every first day of school, every missing tooth—so that we’d have a record of it for if (when) my daughter forgets. 

I also never realized I’d feel such bittersweet sadness to watch her slowly forget everything—playgroup friends, cherished pets, once-loved babysitters and even entire years of her existence. My daughter will be lucky to arrive at adulthood still grasping a few shreds of who she was at three or four. Meanwhile, I will have thousands of photos, three unfinished baby books and a garage crammed with sentimental keepsakes.

Some days it feels like playing Memory Keeper is an impossible responsibility, like trying to hold on to a stack of paper in a windstorm. I can’t keep all the papers from blowing away, but I’m not sure which ones to let go of and which ones will prove important later. Do I keep that watercolor painting she did the first week of preschool? Will she want the 17 photos I took of her first day in her new swimming class? 

Of course, there’s a positive side to all this. The good memories will slide into oblivion, sure, but so will the bad memories, too. Like the time I lost my temper and threw my daughter’s favorite doll in the trash. Or the time I wasn’t paying attention and she toppled off the jungle gym. Or all the times I cried or yelled or ignored her so I could scroll on my phone. 

Then there’s the knowledge that maybe even if the explicit memories fade, the implicit memories will remain. My daughter may reach adulthood with no explicit memories of all the camping trips or the airplane rides or cross-desert train rides we’ve taken together, but my hope is that somehow the implicit memories of all those adventures will stick, sanding her into a person who faces uncertainty with a wild sprint instead of a timid turn of the head. Maybe she’ll grow up to be a 25-year-old with an itch to explore, because something about being on the move, the wind in her face, just feels right.

The sun has set, and the stars are a broad sweep of glitter in the sky. My daughter snuggles into my lap and sings “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and I film a video, adding it to a folder on the cloud. Maybe she’ll watch it when she’s 35 and roll her eyes, wondering why on Earth mom thought it necessary to record such asinine moments. Perhaps she’ll be a mom herself by then, a de facto Memory Keeper, and she’ll understand. She’ll know what it’s like to live with a human who is always changing, always forgetting, while all she can do is watch from the sidelines, clutching a suitcase of memories only she can see, and whispering: Don’t forget.

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