Saturday, June 13, 2009

If This Could Only Be Imprinted On My Brain...

On Being Mom by Anna Quindlen

If not for the photographs, I might have a hard time
believing they ever existed. The pensive infant with
the swipe of dark bangs and the black button eyes of a
Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow
ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler
with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe
above her chin. ALL MY BABIES are gone now.

I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take
great satisfaction in what I have today: three
almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in
fast. Three people who read the same books I do and
have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me
in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar
jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who
need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want
to keep their doors closed more than I like.

Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their
jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by
themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the
bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby
is buried deep within each, barely discernible except
through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once pored over is
finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry
Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and
sleeping through the night and early-childhood
education, all grown obsolete.

Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things
Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I
suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise
like memories.

What those books taught me, finally, and what the
women on the playground taught me, and the
well-meaning relations –what they taught me was that
they couldn’t really teach me very much at all.
Raising children is presented at first as a true-false
test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far
along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one
knows anything. One child responds well to positive
reinforcement, another can be managed only with a
stern voice and a timeout. One boy is toilet trained
at 3, his brother at 2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put
baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on
his own spit- up. By the time my last arrived, babies
were put down on their backs because of research on
sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this
ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then
soothing.

Eventually you must learn to trust yourself.
Eventually the research will follow.

I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr.
Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in
which he describes three different sorts of infants:
average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a
sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month-old who did not
walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little
legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little
mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically
challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China.
Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine.
He can walk, too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too.
Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been
enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame.
The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language,
mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed.
The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The
nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day
when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom
with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, What
did you get wrong? (She insisted I include that.) The
time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through
speaker and then drove away without picking it up from
the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did
not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two
seasons.

What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of
us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment
enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment
is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one
picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a
quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day,
ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we
ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded,
and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish
I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next
thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured
the doing a little more and the getting it done a
little less.

Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t,
what was me and what was simply life. When they were
very small, I suppose I thought someday they would
become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I
suspect they simply grew into their true selves
because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back
off and let them be.

The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense,
matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And
look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three
people I like best in the world, who have done more
than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s
what the books never told me. I was bound and
determined to learn from the experts.

It just took me a while to figure out who the experts
were.


2 comments:

Susie J said...

This is awesome! I might have to copy it to my blog. What a message it sends. Makes me feel better since we are going to take the hard approach this next two weeks with the little Milkaholic. :)

Tami N said...

Read this and hit home for me...thanks for sharing!