Disclaimer: I am not judging anyone for the parenting choices they make, these are just my thoughts on the role of memory making in parenting decisions. I have one kid, what the heck do I know!
“Memory is identity…. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.” Julian Barnes
Earlier this year I made what I thought was a thoroughly unremarkable decision for myself and my family: I decided we were going to Disneyland.
There wasn’t a lot of forethought put into this decision. My husband and I visited Disneyland in 2008 after we got married in Las Vegas, and I enjoyed the spectacle of it. I thought the production values on everything, from the rides, to the displays, to the shops, were really very well done. Before having children I would probably have no compulsion to go there again, but it occurred to me while watching my 4 year old daughter, who loves Disney and princesses and all things ‘magical’, that she would really get a kick out of it. Furthermore, while international travel is hardly a light undertaking (I am The Smart Casual after all, not the Smart Full-Timer) this is something that is feasible if my current rate of employment is maintained throughout the year. I thought about it, I emotionally invested in it, and dang it, the Smart Casuals were going to Anaheim!
What I was ill-prepared for however, was the reaction I got from others regarding this decision. In the course of conversation with friends and family I would bring up my future plans. While some asked questions of the more benign variety, a significant portion responded to this proclamation with some variation of:
“What’s the point of that? It isn’t like she will remember it anyway”.
This reaction really took me by surprise. I was prepared to engage in all types of discourse about the topic of international travel with a 4/5 year old. Some could argue that the plane ride would be too long, or that the time of year we plan to travel would be too expensive. Heck, someone could argue that the Disney universe perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. (My own thoughts on this is that because my daughter has only watched a few Disney movies, she is only familiar with the Disney princess as a fluid concept, rather than a gender limiting archetype, but I digress).
Instead it was being posited to me that the experience we would have in Disneyland was somehow not worth doing at this point in her life because when she grew up, she may not remember it. My initial reaction to this was confusion, but after some consideration I think I understand a little more why I really found this troubling:
1) Rather than Ms 4 having an experience in and of itself, it has become currency in a transaction. By taking her to Disneyland, I am effectively buying myself “good parenting credits”, exchanging hard-earned cash for a good time my child can take with her for life. However if I instead choose to take her to Disneyland at an age when she may later be unable to remember the experience clearly, then there is apparently “no point” to have gone in the first place. If we take this to be so, then what is the age at which she will reach peak memory recall? You could substitute just about any other experience for Disneyland within this transactional scenario and the problem still exists, if you argue that an event is only worthwhile if it is remembered, then we can save ourselves a lot of carnival rides and zoo visits as well.
2) I don’t agree that an event need to be remembered to have resonance in our lives, to “count” or be worthwhile. My Pa was diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and died from this disease only a few years ago. After he was diagnosed his health deteriorated very quickly, and it soon became evident that he was losing all of his memories. He was a man who adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was also very clever, known for his ability to beat just about anyone at Trivial Pursuit. He had the most beautiful singing voice. Towards the end of his life, before he was put into palliative care, I would go and visit him when he was still at home with my Grandmother. When we would arrive he would invariably greet us the same way, by saying “Mother! (his nickname for my Nan) Just look who it is!”
He said this to cover the fact that he didn’t know who we were. While he was losing his memory, he still had the social wherewithal to try and hide it. But we knew. He was hospitalised and died a few months later.
This was a man with over 70 years of memories, most of which were gone, or confused, or hidden in the depths of a damaged brain. In the end he forgot me, and my daughter, and my Mum, and maybe even his wife. But his life was still well lived. It still happened. I like to think that even if he didn’t have his specific memories, of me, my daughter, of his time in the Navy travelling the world, he at least had the essence of those experiences, because what is the alternative? As Julian Barnes writes in his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of (and in the quote featured at the top of this post), did he instead die before his body shuffled off this mortal coil? Did he “cease to be” as a result of ceasing to remember? And if so, what was the point of it?
My Pa went to Anaheim Disneyland once, he was stationed in the area when he travelled with the Navy. He told me that when he went there, that the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride was closed and that he was disappointed because it was the only one he wanted to go on that day, and it was closed for maintenance. I plan to take my daughter on this ride, regardless of the fact she may well not remember it. My Pa almost certainly didn’t remember any of these things at the end of his life. While Lewy-bodies is not an inheritable disease, a time may come where I may not remember our trip to Disneyland either. But it will happen. While the memories may fade, hopefully in the short time we are there, we will spend far too much on Disney memorabilia, take more photos than we could ever hope to print, and my daughter will have the most fun she has ever had. Maybe that can be the point.