For a child, the first years are often thought of as the time before memory. Very few people have specifics that they can recall from much before three years old.
As parents this sometimes makes us think that these first few years will be erased. This is a relief when we think that our mistakes will be drowned in the blurry sea of an infant’s mind. But there’s also no small amount of sadness that this time of pouring tremendous energy into our child will simply evaporate. They won’t remember the hours we held them. The delight we had in each other before the complexities of life took over. Sometimes we’re tempted to ask ourselves whether this time really matters.
With my adopted son we have learned that the memories of early life don’t disappear.
We adopted him from Kazakhstan and as part of their adoption procedures we visited him every day at the orphanage for about six weeks. Normally we took him from the building and played with him outside in the summer sunshine. The other children usually stayed inside.
But one particular day all the children were outside. The workers had them lined up. Two neat rows of young children waiting patiently.
And they were all completely naked.
It was bath day. Because the orphanage dressed them in whatever clothes were available, with no regard to gender, we found that we had been mistaken about quite a few of the children. That was all cleared up on bath day.
There was no tub. The workers used a watering can, the kind with a bucket and a spout that you use for watering plants. They would sprinkle the child like a flower, dry them off and pass them to another worker to be dressed in the next clothes from the pile that approximately fit their body.
The workers tried their best with what they had, but our son spent the first year of his life in constant hunger. They simply didn’t have the resources to feed all the children properly. At sixteen months he weighed barely fifteen pounds. Without the love and attention of parents, he had barely developed. He didn’t speak a word. He couldn’t walk. None of his teeth had even come in.
But within weeks of taking him home he began putting on weight, taking steps and saying his first few words. It was like he had been biologically suspended, waiting for his parents to come. His teeth all started coming in at once, which made for a lot of crying. Crying that we rejoiced to finally hear.
About two years after we brought him home, we were visiting my wife’s parents. We all sat on the deck in their backyard. The children played and the adults chatted. My wife’s mother, who went with us to Kazakhstan, stopped and said, “Will you look at that.”
They had lots of grandchildren and the yard full of toys that came with them. But our son ignored the toys and picked up an empty watering can. He didn’t pretend to sprinkle the flowers. He didn’t even water the grass. He walked straight over and played like he was giving his sister a bath, pouring the imaginary water over her head.
We had never spoken of this brief image to him. We had all forgotten it among the thousands of other experiences in our visit to another country.
He was speaking full sentences by then, but he couldn’t explain why he naturally thought of the watering can as a bathing device. We told him the story and he had no conscious memory of it. But it was there.
Our son is healthy and strong now. Like other children he runs and plays. And sometimes he hurts himself. Skinned knees. Scraped elbows.
When we find him after a fall from a bike or skateboard, he doesn’t scream, “Ow!” He doesn’t even call for his mom.
He cries out, “I’m hungry!”
With blood running down his knee and pain radiating through his body, his mind goes back to its earliest need. He couldn’t tell you any memories of slowly starving in the orphanage. But he remembers. In the deepest part of him, he remembers being hungry and when something breaks through the thick barrier of years, that feeling comes back.
There is no time before memory.
There is a time before language, when the memories are encoded as feelings. When deep paths are laid in the brain. Paths they will return to again and again. If you surround your child with love, then when sharp pain breaks through the layers of their mind, they will call out for love.
Everything you do with a child in the first years of their life matters.