Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Who Stole My Babies?

The other night I went into the boys room to turn off their light after they went to sleep and found Jack grasping this photo of Max as a baby that he had found somewhere. I love this picture; it reminds me of when it was just me and Max hanging out at our old house and how we got to spend so much time together. I feel like I hardly see him anymore now that he's in first grade and at school all day. He might as well have a full time job.
I brought the photo into Steve and said "Who stole my baby?" It really felt that way to me, that this cute, chubby baby had been taken from me and that someone had replaced him with this six year old kid. He's a great six year old kid, don't get me wrong, but those babies...I miss them so much. And then I realized I am going to miss this six year old kid too, and then the 10 year old, the 12 year old, maybe not the teenage kid, and then he's going to be a grown up and he won't be a kid at all. This all made me think of an essay that my friend Mikilani sent me a while ago. I had never read it and it really hit home:

All My Babies Are Gone Now - By Anna Quindlen

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 me, 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.
Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach. 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 relatives and the older parents at cocktail parties-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 only be managed with a stern voice and a time-out. One boy is toilet trained at three, his brother at two. 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.

As a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. First science told us they were insensate blobs. But we thought they were looking, and watching, and learning, even when they spent so much time hitting themselves in the face. And eventually science said that we were right, that important cognitive function began in early babyhood. First science said they should be put on a feeding schedule. But sometimes they seemed hungry in two hours, sometimes three, sometimes all the time, so that we never even bothered to button up. And eventually science said that that was right, and that they would be best fed on demand. First science said environment was the great shaper of human nature. But it certainly seemed as though those babies had distinct personalities, some contemplative, some gregarious, some crabby. And eventually science said that was right, too, and that they were hardwired exactly as we had suspected.

It is good that we know so much more now, know that mothers need not be perfect to be successful. I remember fifteen 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 (see: slug) for an eighteen-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 walk just fine. He can walk too well. Every part of raising children at some point comes down to this: Be careful what you wish for.
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.)

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 six, four, and one. 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. How much influence did I really have over the personality of the former baby who cried only when we gave parties and who today, as a teenager, still dislikes socializing and crowds? 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.
There was babbling I forgot to do, stimulation they never got, foods I meant to introduce and never got around to introducing. If a black-and-white mobile really increases depth perception and early exposure to classical music increases the likelihood of perfect pitch, I blew it.

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. 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.

This essay reminded me how important it is to appreciate my kids for who they are, to trust myself as a parent, and to listen and pay attention to my kids because they are the only ones on the planet that really know what they need. It also reminded me of the constant battle I seem to be waging against the idea of "doing things" vs. "getting things done." It's so much easier to get things done, and I find myself very bad at the doing things, like art projects, playing with Playmobil Pirates or Indiana Jones Legos. It was a good reminder for me that these kids aren't going to be around forever. It also reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when I was at the zoo with the kids and we ran into one of our neighbors I really respect who is a Grandmother. She told me that she was happy to see me enjoying my children, and I think about that statement often. Sure, I love my children, but do I really enjoy them? All their energy, enthusiasm, joyfulness, honesty, humor? I know I don't as much as I should, so this is a reminder to me that I need to start living in the moment more, and worry about the dishes sitting in the sink less. Not easy, but I'm going to work on it, and hopefully I'll get there before they're packing up to move into their college dorm.


Christian said...

Thanks for posting this! My biggest goal this year has been to enjoy being with my children, to really see them, hear them, appreciate the moments we're together. It's like yoga where you check with yourself and find you're not mentally present. I've been checking myself, and realizing how much better life is when I'm present with the kids. Beautiful essay, beautiful insights!



Kate Bailey said...

What a fantastic reminder. Thank you! I think I need to read something like this every day, because we forget so quickly...

Alison said...

I've been thinking along the same lines since I posted about Oli's new shoes. I loved the essay - what a great perspective.