Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

September 24, 2001

Baby steps: walking into a new stage of life

There are certain milestones in parenting that you really look forward to: your baby‘s first smile, the first taste of solid food and perhaps more than anything, the first step.

Experienced parents like nothing more than to ruin your tingly anticipation with dire warnings:

That’s not a smile; it’s gas. And if you’re not careful, the baby’s going to set the room on fire...

Solid food, eh? Your diaper pail is going to start to smell like a camel in a phone booth. Better buy a moon suit.

You’ll spend your whole day chasing after the baby...

When children start walking, they’re 72 percent more likely to split their heads open like melons...

I once knew a baby who walked at six months. Wore his legs down to bloody stubs. They had to get all new carpet!

Like all new parents, Adam and I looked forward to Lucy’s first steps. We’ve been expecting them for months. When Lucy rolled over at a mere five weeks, we wrongly assumed she would walk at, say, four months. She didn’t. She couldn’t even sit up then. But, because we’re not demanding parents yet, we forgave her.

We forgave her, and we waited patiently for her to crawl. This did not happen at five months, like we expected. But we said, “That’s all right, baby,” and tried not to laugh in the early crawling days when she could only go backward.

Even though we know it’s not nice to laugh at your children, particularly when they are innocent babies, we couldn’t help but laugh when Lucy developed The Turbocrawl. This is where she puts her head down and moves her arms and legs as fast as they can go. She frequently bumps into walls this way. But there is dignity in this; she hits them with impressive speed.

When Lucy started to stand at nine months, we again expected her to walk, any day. As it happened, she did not, despite frequent walking lessons and good advice from my 5-year-old cousin Paul, who suggested she start with “baby steps — just baby steps.”

By Lucy’s first birthday, I was really ready for her to walk. First steps on a first birthday would have been awfully poetic, so I aimed the video camera as Lucy’s uncle John nudged her forward. After extreme coaxing, she did it. Three steps! And then she sat down and started looking miserable. So much for the magic of turning 1. It does not mean a baby will suddenly give up crawling forever, no matter how overbearing the parent.

In the two weeks since, Adam and I have given Lucy many opportunities to strut her stuff. This is despite the warning from Uncle Michael about life with a walking baby. On the one hand, I know that Michael is probably right. He usually is.

But on the other hand, there’s a reason they don’t sell babies at the convenience store. Babies are inconvenient, and thoroughly so. Given that, what would it mean if Lucy crossed one more threshold?

I think I am beginning to find out.

She’s also starting to show great interest in practicing this new skill. Her new hobby is what Adam calls “mowing down the pets.” Lucy laughs maniacally as she races her plastic walker toward the dog, the cats and anything furry that’s not smart enough to get out of her way. This mostly means me.

Lucy has the stamina to play this game all day long, every day. And the practice is paying off.

Just the other day, she took nine steps toward Adam. She looked like a metronome, rocking from one shuffling foot to the other. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. If there was a sound-effect to Lucy’s walking, that’s what it would be.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock. This is the sound of a time bomb.

There are only days left before Lucy is no longer a baby. Once she’s walking, she’ll be a toddler. There will be no backward crawling from here.

I’m going to miss that little bean. It’s almost enough to make me want to have another baby. I’ve taken to sniffing friends’ newborns, just to enjoy that new baby smell once again. I hope this is legal. It sure beats the smell of the diaper pail.

The only thing that makes saying goodbye to my baby bearable is the knowledge that I’ll be there as she turns into a child, and over the years, into an adult.

I have just one request of her: baby steps, Lucy. Take baby steps. If nothing else in my life does, I want this adventure to last.

Finding hope in dark times

When I was spreading peanut butter on Lucy’s toast last Tuesday, the World Trade Center was burning.

When I was filling her sippy cup with milk, people in New York City were dying.

And when I clicked on the TV to catch some news headlines before starting work for the day, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

It wasn’t until then, of course, that I knew anything was wrong. It was such a simple morning, completely routine, right down to the part where Lucy threw her breakfast on the floor.

Yet in the midst of this ritual, the world as we know it changed. I say the world as we know it, because for many people, heartless, unexpected violence is as normal as rain.

It’s rare to watch catastrophic destruction on live TV. It’s so rare, in fact, that it looked like fiction, like a Hollywood interpretation of doomsday.

It didn’t feel that way, though. As I watched the World Trade Center burn, I could see in my minds’ eye thousands of workers filing down the stairs, desperate for another flash of sun on their faces. When the tower collapsed on itself and send forth a tornado of dust and glass and steel, I knew I was watching people die. All I could do was hold Lucy on my lap and weep.

There’s something about being a mother that makes all the world’s evil feel that much worse. Those people in that building were someone’s children. Many of them had children of their own.

When your life is defined by the creative act of becoming a parent, and when the rhythm of your day is defined by a steady desire to protect and nurture and love the life you wrought, you also develop the capacity to suffer greatly through the loss of others. That could be have been me, you think. That could have been my husband; that could have been my child.

For most people, having children is the one miracle you will experience. You’re part of a mysterious, creative energy that hums in all life, everywhere. Whether you bear your own children, or raise children borne by others, you get to plunge your hands deeply into the daily, constructive effort of life. It is the opposite of terrorism, the opposite of destruction. When you make the choice to have a child, you align yourself against the enemies of death and indifference. Being a parent changes you, in that you feel the loss and hurt of every child, everywhere.

And this is not the only way having children changes you. It changes the way you look at others. It gives you power to see beauty you could not see before. I felt this keenly later in the week, as wracked family members held up sheets of paper with pictures of their missing loved ones. The smiling faces on the fliers overwhelmed me, especially in contrast to the grim faces of the grieving. The lost ones all looked radiant, sitting behind neat desks, on soft couches, smiling broadly, so painfully innocent of their fate.

What made them so beautiful was that they looked real, imperfect, and sincere — so much like the people I hold dear. They weren’t supermodels struggling mightily with the effort of getting out of bed after a hard night of being fabulous. They were regular people with regular haircuts and regular, hopeful eyes, just doing the best they could to live their lives.

And — as you could tell by looking at the people who’d put together those fliers — they were loved.

More than 6,300 people were killed last week. If we were to grieve each life for just one day, it would take us more than 17 years to finish the task. But the families that lost their husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons will grieve far longer than a day. They will grieve years. They will grieve lifetimes. Their sorrow will travel through time like the ripples of water from stone hurled into the widest lake. Those rings of sadness will reach outward to infinity.

But the grieving families will also carry on with their lives, because that is what their loved ones would have wanted them to do.

Terrorism makes it that much harder to carry on. It plants the twin seeds of fear and hatred, seeds that grow into crippling, choking plants. And that, of course, is the point. Terrorism takes lives, and it aims to maim the ones that are left. It is fueled by inhumanity, and it breeds the same. Misery begets misery, and in this, terrorists find their power and their joy. It’s like cancer, because to kill it, you run the risk of killing yourself.

But there is also hope. And oddly, I find it in terrorism’s darkest center. When violence can erupt anywhere, something else is born. Each of us becomes a soldier; each of us has the opportunity to do heroic things.

If the world has changed, it also means we have a new opportunity to dedicate our lives to things that are greater than ourselves, things that transcend our span of years.

These things are family and community. They are love and peace, acceptance and understanding. They are tolerance and compassion. They are courage and commitment in crisis. They are the things that create a hopeful future for our children, and for other people’s children, and for those generations yet to inherit the earth.

I find great comfort in the fact that, in times like these, some of the most heroic things we can do are simple: live, and love.

September 17, 2001

Life is hard — and very good

Yesterday started out with a headache. Adam needed a ride to work, and he had to be there by 8 a.m., which meant we had to be out the door no later than 7.

It used to be I could be out the door 15 minutes after waking up. Those never turned out to be good hair days for me. But when I needed to, I could hustle.

Once you have a baby, leaving the house takes forever — even at top speed. I need an extra 30 minutes to change Lucy, dress Lucy, feed Lucy and pack Lucy’s diaper bag.

And these days, matters are more complicated by our dog’s sore nose. She’s rubbed it raw, and even with the lampshade collar the vet gave her, Misty needs to be watched constantly to stop her from doing more damage. What’s more, she’s no longer allowed to eat scraps under the high chair. So, feeding Lucy on the fly goes like this:

Put Lucy in high chair. Sprinkle Cheerio appetizer on tray so Lucy doesn’t get antsy and scream. Put frozen waffles in toaster. Tuck Misty’s pills into peanut butter and stick them in her mouth. Wash peanut butter and dog slobber off hands. Race outside with Misty while Lucy eats Cheerios, but before she throws them on floor.

Take Lucy out of high chair. Take waffles out of toaster. Burn fingers. Blow on waffles so Lucy doesn’t get burned. Laugh while Lucy blows, too. Eat one waffle.

Go outside. Don’t forget purse and diaper bag. Feel grateful you married a man who’s willing to carry your purse and diaper bag out to car. Call dog. Put Lucy in car seat. Give Lucy waffle. Take Misty’s lampshade off so she can get in car. Tell Lucy not to feed Misty waffle. Kiss Lucy’s head. Pray.

By the time we were all in the car, at 7:06 a.m., my head felt like irritable elves with tiny hammers were making toys in there. We stopped for road coffee, which helped a little. While sipping my coffee on the way to Adam’s office, I realized that the license tabs on the car had expired. For some reason, we’d never gotten a renewal notice in the mail.

Now, in addition to having the elf headache, I also was certain we were minutes away from getting a ticket. I’d been driving with expired tabs for two months, so the paranoia was late in coming. But once it arrived, it stuck like corn in teeth. I was sure there was a police car around every bend in the road, just waiting to throw the book at me. And that was going to hurt. I just knew it. I... I...

But no such thing happened. We made it to Adam’s office with 15 minutes to spare. Imagine the luck!

I decided to go to my parents’ house, so that Lucy and I could get a legal ride to the Department of Licensing. The whole way to Mom and Dad’s, I fretted about the ticket I was sure I would get. But I still didn’t get one. Luck was on my side, once again.

When we got to the Department of Licensing, I realized I didn’t have my checkbook, and they didn’t take credit cards. But once again, I got lucky. I’d forgotten to pay the babysitter the week before, and had a wad of cash that amounted to exactly $2.50 more than the new tabs cost.

Then Mom and I drove to my grandmother’s house, because Mom had to take her to a doctor’s appointment. While a sleeping Lucy and I waited in the car, I fished around for something to read. I found a book in the back seat that began with this very sentence:

“Life is difficult.”

True, true, I thought. But sometimes, you get lucky. Like with the license tabs, the unexpected but handy cash and most of all, with Lucy, who remained sleeping. (She is so beautiful when she sleeps. I have to restrain myself from biting her plump cheeks.)

While Mom and Lucy went to the doctor with Greem, I worked on an outline for a writing project that’s been tormenting me. I procrastinated a bit by checking my voice mail, and discovered that my agent had called.

Did she have news on my book proposal? I was afraid to wonder. But Tanya wasn’t there, so I left a message and waited for Mom and Lucy to get back from the doctor’s. Greem is in fine health, despite her protestations that she’s old. It was good to hear. Lucky us.

Then Lucy and I headed home. Laramie, our babysitter, was meeting us there so I could do a little more work. (Even though I had forgotten to pay her the week before. She’s awfully forgiving. Again, lucky me.)

Traffic was clogged, and I realized I was going to be late.

Argh. This was a problem. Not only was I wasting precious babysitting time, I also had to get Adam’s cat, who has kidney disease, to the vet. I didn’t want to be late for that, and I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take me to get Spot into the carrier. He has all the personality and some of the same eating habits of Hannibal Lecter.

I also realized I’d forgotten to put the new license tabs on the car. And, because Lucy hates traffic, she decided to scream for the 45 minutes it took us to get home, 45 minutes I spent worrying about non-existent police officers, unhappy babies and angry, angry cats.

Is life difficult? It was feeling like it.

By the time we got home, Lucy was both pissed off and hungry, and she wanted to nurse. But I had to get Misty’s lampshade back on before she tore off what’s left of her nose, and the cat had slipped out the door, and I needed to get him in his carrier before the vet’s appointment, which was by now, only 20 minutes away.

So, no milk for Lucy. Not this time, anyway. If she could have, she would have said, “Life is difficult.” And, at that moment, I would have agreed.

Instead, she just screamed while Laramie, who had waited patiently for us, pried her out of my arms. I made Lucy some lunch. Then I fetched Misty and put her lampshade on. Then I coaxed Spot back inside and decided to call my agent.

If I was going to get bad news, it might as well come at a bad time.

“Tanya,” I said, when she answered the phone. “It’s Martha.”

For the last several months, Tanya had been working hard trying to get the Diary of a Pregnancy sold as a book. It wasn’t an easy job. I’m a relatively unknown humor writer, and columns usually don’t get reborn this way. I was almost certainly going to get bad news.

“They made us an offer,” she said.

I had to say goodbye to Tanya to get the cat to the vet on time for his appointment. But this is how I learned that I’d become an author. Mixed in with inconvenience, chaos, neurosis, discomfort and a whole lot of luck.

The Diary of a Pregnancy will be published by Andrews McMeel next fall. This is the same company that has published Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and my favorite, Erma Bombeck.

I guess it’s true what I read: Life is difficult. If it isn’t, I have no other way to explain how frazzled and haggard I look. But life is also deliriously exciting, especially when the best news is tucked into the most challenging days, in much the same way the dog’s pills are tucked into a glob of peanut butter — and much the same way the thrill and beauty of having a child is surrounded by endless chores, stickiness and tears.

Except for Misty's sore nose, I’d like more of the same.

September 10, 2001

A tall order: Don't sell Lucy short

It used to be that Lucy’s appointments with the pediatrician were something to look forward to. There was one reason for this, and one reason only: Lucy was a thrillingly large baby.

Mind you, it wasn’t so thrilling delivering such a hefty child. Her head was so large, it ranked in the 90th percentile for newborn babies. This means that 89 babies out of 100 could wear smaller hats. No wonder it took me months before I could bend over without fearing my intestines were going to fall out.

That said, birthing this giant baby was still worth the discomfort.

This is because, all my life, I’ve been puny. I have been called Shrimp, Shorty and Shortcake. During the ‘70s, I had to listen to that awful Randy Newman “Short People” song over and over again, right when I was developing an awareness that I was one of those short people who had (pause) no reason to live — and before I had developed an appreciation for sarcasm. The very sound of his voice still haunts and annoys me. Please, somebody stop him before he makes another soundtrack.

But my short story doesn’t end there. I also used to like to wear my Mom’s glasses because the distortion through the lenses made me feel positively statuesque (and dizzy and nauseous).

Furthermore, I have been on the side of the Big Bad Wolf ever since the dental assistant remarked, “You have very large teeth for such a little girl.”

By the eighth grade, when my friends were all wearing fashionable adult clothes, I could still fit inside a small locker, with my child-size tube socks pulled over my knees. During gym, I could stick my arm through the chain link fence of the backstop all the way above my elbow. It was a good way to obscure the fact my wee biceps couldn’t hit a baseball out of the infield.

Ever since then, I’ve thought, “Boy. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a daughter who’s tall? Really tall. Like, 5-foot-4.”

When I married Adam, I realized this was a possibility. He’s a majestic 6 feet when he remembers to stand up straight.

And when Lucy’s early measurements pegged her at the 90th percentile in height, I thought, “The curse of the ever-shrinking generations has been lifted.”

Due to this curse, I am shorter than my mother, who is shorter than her mother. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. Modern nutrition is supposed to go straight to our bones. But not in my family. At the rate we’re going, I will have grandchildren who bathe in teacups, and great grandchildren who sleep in matchboxes.

I still thought I was in fine shape at Lucy’s three-month checkup, when she ranked in the 80th percentile for height. Mind you, visiting the doctor got less fun because all those endless immunizations had begun. But I had a tall baby, and all was well.

Over time, Lucy continued to slide down the charts. By six months, she was average. By nine months, she was a tiny bit below average. I started to fret. “Am I feeding her enough?” I asked the doctor.

She reassured me that everything was OK. Babies eventually settle on a growth trend, she said, no matter how big they are when they’re born. That made sense. And I was perfectly happy to have an average-sized daughter. I’d still see my dreams of 5-foot-4 come true. No cuffed pants for Lucy!

And then came the one-year checkup.

Lucy is now in the seventh percentile for height and the 10th for weight. Her head is relatively large, at the 45th percentile. Lucy has settled into her growth trend, and the word is this: She’s built like a spoon – all head.

And, in all likelihood, this is the way she will stay.

On the one hand, I know that there’s nothing wrong with being short. I’m short. I’m thriving. But on the other hand, this is a society that gives losers the “short end of the stick.” We accuse snippy people of being “short” with us. When you don’t have enough money, you’re “short” on funds.

Let’s face it: We’re terribly heightist. And it’s all Randy Newman’s fault.

So, while I’ve overcome my own shortness, it seems really unfair to me that Lucy is going to be short, as well.

I was counting on her to be tall. I had planned to live vicariously through her. I was going to see life through a tall person’s eyes, without having to borrow anyone’s glasses to do it. Isn’t this why people have children in the first place? So they can have a second childhood, a second adolescence, a second shot at being a teen-ager?

Good Lord.

When I put it that way, I am realizing something important. I don’t want to do any of that again. Especially the teen-ager part. So, I hereby vow not to live vicariously through Lucy.

That would be so shortsighted of me.