Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

August 27, 2001

Lucy is 1: Reflections on a first birthday

Lucy turned 1 on Sunday. I had her all to myself for a while in the morning, because Adam needed just 20 more minutes of sleep — 20 minutes that turned into an hour, but that is another story altogether.

As Lucy scurried around the carpet, playing with her new toys, I started leaking a few tears. I can’t believe a year has passed. It’s been the longest of years, and the shortest of years. It’s been the best of times. I suppose I could steal from Dickens and say it’s also been the worst of times. But that wouldn’t be true.

During the last year, I feel like I’ve been a part of a miracle.

A child has come into our lives, from no place I could see or feel. We watched her move on ultrasound. I felt her kick and tumble inside of me. We held her when she could not lift her head. We cheered when she rolled over the first time. We propped her up with pillows so she could sit and see the world from new heights. And we gasped with wonder, delight and fear when she started pulling herself up in the crib.

And now here she is, a year old, flipping through her Touch and Feel Puppy book, and barking like a dog.

When Adam finally came downstairs (the very loud “educational” toy phone woke him up), we talked a little about the baby woofing at my feet.

“She’s so alive,” he said.

And really, that sums it up so well. She’s alive.

This is what stings my eyes every time I think of it -– that something so beautiful and difficult, something so fragile, and so resilient, is cruising around the living room, trying so very hard to grab a handful of cat.

From the cat’s perspective, all of this is a pain in the tail.

And if I didn’t stop every once in awhile to catch my breath, I can see myself thinking the same: that a baby is a real pain in the tail. The work is endless, unglamorous and messy.

But this is why I need to take a break every now and then. I need to watch the creature that takes so much effort, and to be amazed that she’s here. I try to do this every day. It makes me feel as though I have a front-row seat at the world’s most ancient and mysterious show, that I am witness to the dawn of time.

I’m sure all of this hovering and weeping will annoy Lucy when she’s, say, 18. But I don’t think I’ll be able to restrain myself.

Since I’ve become a mother, I have a different perspective on everyone around me. Everyone is somebody’s child, somebody’s miracle, deserving of love and awe. Even the shirtless beggar waving the giant cardboard mug on the sidewalk, the one that says, “Why Lie? I Need a Beer.”

I don’t give him any money, of course. His mother wouldn’t want me to. But I think of him with compassion every time I drive by, just because once upon a time, he too was a 1-year-old crawling around somebody’s carpet.

Sometimes I wonder how some people end up waving cardboard beer mugs, while others end up driving by them on their way to real jobs that require the wearing of shirts. For now, though, I’m not even going to worry about where Lucy ends up. That’s just as problematic as focusing only on the day-to-day work of taking care of a child. It makes you miss the magic along the way.

Keeping a journal has inspired me to notice what Lucy does. It’s also helped me to remember it later, when exhaustion otherwise might have erased that part of my brain. Inevitably, I missed some of the magic of this first year. But not much.

I read a quotation recently in a collection of essays by E.B. White that captures some of what I’m feeling:

“When my wife’s Aunt Caroline was in her nineties, she lived with us and she once remarked: ‘Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.’ I cherish the remembrance of the beauty I have seen. I cherish the grave, compulsive world.”

In just that way, I cherish the memory of Lucy’s transformation from mysterious infant to understood child.

Take the memory, for example, of Lucy’s expression when Adam held her birthday cake in front of her. Her face glowed in the light of the lone candle burning atop the tiny, pink cake. But instead of looking happy, her face said, “How awful! I’m the only one here who doesn’t know the lyrics to this song!”

She didn’t really know what to do with the cake, either. We put her in her high-chair, and set the cake in front of her. She leaned forward and started biting it, tentatively. So much for the Hollywood-style birthday cake smash.

Lucy handled her first birthday as she handles other new and unfamiliar things.

She just isn’t the kind of kid who plunges headfirst into whatever’s in front of her. She’s an observer. She doesn’t like to do something unless she’s sure it’s going to work. She was like this with talking, and she is the same way with walking. She’s taken steps, but only at our urging. Otherwise, she prefers to crawl, or to cruise in the safe shadow of the living room furniture.

The more she does, the more I start to understand the person she is, and the kind of mother I need to be to help her have a full and happy life -- one where caution is balanced with courage.

Just thinking about it, I am once again in tears. How quickly this goes by. How magical it is to watch. And how wonderful it is to love this much.

August 20, 2001

Moms vs. Dads: They're not the same

Lying in bed a couple nights ago, I started thinking about the difference between mothers and fathers. This wasn’t just idle contemplation. On the contrary, I was lying in a patch of cookie crumbs, and the topic naturally came to mind.

“Adam, wake up,” I said. “How did crumbs get in the sheets?”

“Oh,” he said. “Lucy must have forgotten she had a cookie.”

A cookie in bed? This is half the difference between mothers and fathers.

I had taken a rare night off — just the third one since Lucy was born nearly a year ago. Adam, Lucy and I had traveled to Whistler, British Columbia, for a wedding. The night before the ceremony, the women all went out to dinner together while the “menfolk” tended the “chilluns.” (That’s how the groom described it, anyway — menfolk and chilluns. And to think, he grew up in New Jersey.)

Tending chilluns apparently requires putting them to bed with cookies. When I came home, I found Lucy passed out. Her arms were flung out to either side, and she wore the serene mask of deep sleep. I didn’t know about the forgotten cookie until I was all tucked in myself, on top of the many crumbs it had shed escaping Lucy’s grip. And I didn’t find it until the next morning when I was making the bed. It popped out, a sad little disk all gnawed around the edges.

Naturally, I ate it.

This is the other half of the difference between mothers and fathers. Dads put babies to bed with cookies. Moms sleep in the crumbs, and then eat the wounded hunks their children have discarded. I draw the line when it comes to food bits that find their way into her diapers. But my scavenging technique has saved me precious time in the morning. Why make breakfast, when there’s a perfectly good source of nutrition in the crib, the high chair, the car seat and baby’s little overall pockets? Now that I’m thinking of it, it’s probably a really good thing I can’t reach my own nipples. Who knows what kind of snacking I would have done in these often desperate first months of Lucy’s life?

But getting back to nutrition. Adam put Lucy to bed with dessert. This is not something I would ever do. And it’s not just because it will rot her perfect little teeth, though that is one very good reason to avoid the practice. Rather, a slept-on cookie just doesn’t make a great breakfast for me. If I’m going to put Lucy to bed with anything, it ought to be a pot of coffee and a scone. But I wouldn’t trust her to leave me with any leftovers. So for now, I put Lucy to bed with clean teeth and a hug. And also with Adam, who does the hard part of getting her to sleep at night.

He has developed a routine, something I would never have the patience to do. And yet, it is one of the things that have made me love him even more this year ever. The routine goes like this: Adam changes Lucy’s diaper and puts her in her jammies. I know. It’s exactly what I would do. The next thing I would do is read her a book, pop her in the crib and say, “Nighty night.”

This wouldn’t get Lucy to sleep in a million years. Or in 15 minutes, which is about how long I can tolerate. What Adam does next is say goodnight to everything on the second floor of our house. He and Lucy say goodnight to the pictures on the walls. They say goodnight to my T-shirts, and goodnight to the lamp that’s still in the closet because we don’t have a bedside table to put it on. They say goodnight to babies No. 1, 2, 3 and 4, who make appearances in various mirrors between the bedroom and bathroom. They rustle the shower curtain, and bid it goodnight. They say goodnight to the computer, and to each stuffed animal in Lucy’s room. Then they read a book or two.

Then Lucy and Adam come downstairs and say goodnight. Often, I nurse Lucy a little bit, and then return her to Adam, who takes her upstairs to do the whole routine over again.

About 45 minutes after he’s started, Adam comes down with empty arms. I could never do a bedtime routine like this. I would never think to say goodnight to the shower curtain. I also don’t have the patience to coax her to sleep. My thought process goes more like this: Babies need sleep. You’re a baby. You should go to sleep, or I will fail you as a parent. Also, if I put you to bed with a cookie, your teeth will rot. And I will fail you as a parent.

Adam is the creative, patient one who invents all the voices for the stuffed animals. I am the one who focuses on such boring things as tooth enamel, sleep requirements, sunscreen, immunizations, nutrition and general crud removal. I suppose our roles could just as easily be switched, assuming I could for more than 12 seconds let go of my Catholic guilt complex and Protestant work ethic. A lobotomy might make that possible, but, as they say, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

So for now, I’m happy to let Adam be the fun one. That could be because Lucy lets me know all the time that she needs me. No, she doesn’t say, “Hey. Thanks for looking out for my teeth.” Her need runs deeper than that. When she falls and bonks her head, I’m the one she stretches her arms toward. When she wakes up from a nap, she doesn’t smile until I’m holding her. And she will cry, guaranteed, if I put her down before she’s had her fill.

Adam got a little taste of what it’s like to be the necessary parent last week. He took Lucy to the aquarium, because he thought it would be fun for her to watch the seals eat. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. Lucy got one look at the frogmen who were gliding around underwater doling out fish parts, and she had a panic attack. Adam says she crawled up his shoulder and clutched his head. Only the much smaller, much cuter sea otters restored her.

“It felt really good to be the one she wanted,” Adam told me later.

I knew what he meant. And someday, when he’s the one grilling her boyfriends in the living room, maybe I can be the fun one.

Then again, maybe not. All those teen-age boys want the same thing — to be in extremely close proximity to Lucy’s perfect, perfect teeth. The mere thought of it makes me want to stick another cookie in her crib.

August 06, 2001

How to know you're ready to be a parent

Lucy is almost a year old. It’s a little late, but I’m starting to wonder if I was really ready to be a parent.

I thought I was, of course. I had everything I thought I needed: a happy marriage, solid finances and a sincere desire to dress someone tiny in cute things. Someone besides my husband’s cat.

As it turns out, these things are not enough.

What you also need, if you’re going to be a parent, is tough skin. And I’m not speaking metaphorically here. As it turns out, baby fingernails are really sharp and difficult to trim. I’ve spent several months of Lucy’s first year covered in wee scabs that Lucy has given me while nursing intently, trying to avoid going into the crib, or maybe just checking me for fleas.

She does the same things to the pets, although I do not have their coat of protective fur, except on my legs, which I no longer have time to shave regularly. Why can’t Lucy just scratch those? I don’t know. It’s not as if she doesn’t try. Or perhaps the long leg hair is working its magic. Either way, Lucy hangs on my pant leg almost constantly as she perfects the art of walking. Why, just last week, she pulled my pajama bottoms right off.

Which brings me to another thing you need to be a parent: pants that stay up. When you’re nursing, you have to get used to flashing your breasts in public regularly. Not everyone appreciates it, but most enlightened people are willing to support a baby’s right to eat in public, even if that includes a little unbidden boob now and then. I don’t know of anyone, however, who feels the same way about pants coming down. This is the sort of thing people call the police over. And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s a little humiliating, because you’re still wearing the same stretched-out underwear you wore when you were pregnant and refused to buy spanky pants.

Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned one needs to be a parent: a total loss of pride.

Many, many times, you’ll find yourself within earshot of other adults saying things like, “Yes. See the birdie. Birdie flies and lands on tree. Tree is green and full of birds. Birds!” It wouldn’t be so bad if babies held up their part of the conversation. But they don’t. You end up sounding like one of those people who says, “Enough about me, though. What do YOU think of me?”

There’s a variation on the pride theme. And that is acceptance — acceptance that other people will frequently think you’re having delusions of prodigy. When your baby learns tricks, such as clapping, saying “hi,” and pointing to the pig in her Barnyard Dance book, she will NEVER do this in front of an audience. Everyone will think you’re just imagining she really can do these things. Which in some cases is probably true. After all, everyone who’s ever had a baby knows what it’s like to have the world’s most beautiful and talented child. It’s a miracle, a freakin’ miracle.

Have I mentioned, by the way, that Lucy can snap her fingers? She is only 11 months old and she can snap! It’s stunning. Probably a Guinness record. If there were a Snap-Olympics, she’d take the gold. But there isn’t a Snap-Olympics, and really no discernable market for babies who can snap.

And this brings me to the next thing you need to have before you become a parent: acceptance of their flaws. It took me 30 years to achieve perfection myself. As a mother, I am giving Lucy 10 years to do the same. I don’t know what I’ll do in 10 years if she isn’t perfect. I’m pretty attached to her, and don’t imagine I’ll try to sell her on Ebay or anything.

But it does bring to mind another quality parents really ought to have: flexibility. You can be a very, very organized person coming into the parenthood game. You can be so good at getting things that people regularly compliment you on this trait. If you have a job outside the house, it’s the sort of thing that gets you nice, fat raises. You might even get addicted to that “I’m done!” sensation.

You have to get over this.

With a baby, and I’m just betting, with a child, nothing is ever really done. It’s just momentarily stable. If you’re lucky. Changed the diaper? Guess what. She just pooped. Washed her toys? Guess what. The dog is slobbering on Buzzy Bee. Dishes done? Not any more. Baby just had a sippy cup of milk. And then she threw it on the floor you just cleaned, and the lid came off and the cat walked through it and now there is milk between the kitchen and the family room. Also, the baby wants carpet time, which means you need to be there to make sure she doesn’t bonk her head, bite the lamp cord, or make the cat do something everyone will later regret.

The benefit of this, of course, is that babies enjoying carpet time are adorable. Especially when you turn into a tickle monster and they laugh until they collapse under the weight of all that hilarity. They’re even more adorable when you say, “Where’s your ball?” and they crawl and get it. Genius is cute! As good as snapping, if not better.

I’m not saying there are no fringe benefits of parenting. It’s just that you can’t get into this game expecting your life will go from good to perfect. If anything, it’ll go from good to seriously messed up.

If you’re like the silent, skulking majority for example, you won’t have had a good night’s sleep since before the baby was born. Of course, you hear about those infants who start sleeping through the night at six weeks. And, although they’re probably just such dullards they wouldn’t be interested in the world around them if it was shaped like a giant, leaking nipple, it doesn’t make you feel all that much better that you’re raising a genius, because the 2 a.m. screaming has left you with seriously diminished hearing. In fact, you might not even be able to enjoy her playing violin concertos in two years if this continues.

When you start thinking like that, though, you just have to feel glad you mastered the concept of “one day at a time” before you became a parent. You can’t worry about today’s hearing loss ruining tomorrow’s recital. More generally, if you’re stuck in the middle of a difficult day — let’s say, a teething day, or the kind of day that happens after baby has eaten a lot of corn — you can’t give in to your fear that all is lost and you will never shower before noon again. Rather, it’s just this day you’re living that is tough. Tomorrow is sure to be easier, for tonight, almost certainly, your baby will sleep straight through.

Mastering the art of taking things one day at a time is easiest when you’ve also cultured with a healthy ability for denial. Is minivan ownership starting to look attractive to you? No! You’re just developing more appreciation for old people — people with kids in elementary school. Did you just lick your finger and wipe graham cracker off your baby’s face? Of course not! It just might have looked that way to someone who doesn’t understand how something like this could happen on accident. Is that poop on your arm? Nope! You’re just going to scrub that wet lint with antibacterial soap for kicks, that’s all.

And speaking of kicks, it’s probably a good idea to define “going to Costco” as a date with your husband before you have a child, so it won’t feel that lame when a trip to Costco actually is a date. Adam and I had a great one yesterday. It even cost the same as a really, really nice dinner out with friends: $300. We spent $30 on diapers, which is about what a decent bottle of wine costs. A bottle of wine, or a month’s supply of diapers — I say, the diapers are a lot more fun, especially because it now sometimes takes two people to change Lucy when she’s feeling like going on a clothing strike.

Lucy was on just such a clothing strike last week when Adam and I decided to give her a bath. The sound of running water inspired her, and she wet all over me. Before I had a child, being peed on would have gone on my list of 10 Things I Will Never Stand For.

Now, though, I stood for it. And I didn’t stop standing until Lucy was in the tub, Adam was bathing her, and it was safe for me to change pants. Along with many other gross things, getting peed on is a lot better than watching the news. Because invariably when you watch, you hear a story about something awful happening to someone else’s child. And then, before you know it, you find yourself blinking back tears, because you can understand someone else’s pain in a way you never could before. This is where the day stops for a moment, and you cross your heart and pray that nothing ever happens to your child.

Everything else about being a parent you can learn on the way — the patience, the acceptance, the laughter in the face of chaos and depravity. But that one lesson is the hardest: how to live with the knowledge that the best thing you’ve ever known — the best part of you, really — will soon be walking. And eventually, she’ll walk places you can’t protect her.

Are you ready for that? Can anyone ever be?