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Back to Their Future

Let’s (Semi-)Reassure the Baby-Mamas: What Did We Do Right?

Apparently this blog’s got a gaggle of “underage” lurkers who are a bit freaked out by some of our weightier posts.

A London-based mommy-blogger (who writes about ages 0-5) e-mailed us wistfully: “I was hoping that the fear factor might dissipate as they grow older. I guess no matter how the years go by, they are always your babies and you are always that mother hovering over the crib, checking they’re still breathing.”

And a book club of young mothers in New Jersey (among them, my former babysitter) shelved its regularly scheduled programming to have an anxious summit on how they may have already messed up their preschoolers and pre-tweens. Anticipating the deluge of sex/drugs/rock-n-roll soon to engulf her babies, one wrote: “All I can say is, brain hurts and need wine.”

Well, no wonder, ye of still-supple flesh and lustrous locks, minivans and menstrual cycles: that’s what you get for surfing age-inappropriate sites on the interwebs. Shouldn’t you be slicing oranges for some soccer tournament? Don’t y’all have goodie bags or piñatas to stuff?

You’ll be in our well-worn shoes before you know it.

For now, take a deep, cleansing breath – and PUSH. Push that fear and self-doubt right out of your mind. They won’t do you a lick of good. Or
as a shrink once said to me back in the day, when I dragged in my willful toddler for a consult: “You know, you don’t have to be the perfect mother, and she doesn’t have to be the perfect child.”

A no-brainer to many, no doubt – but news to me.  And I’ve called upon it many times since, when I’ve been angry at myself or at one of my kids.

Flash back even further: 25.5 years. See me hunched over in my hospital bed, devouring parenting books while the afore-mentioned firstborn, one day old, slept placidly nearby. The more I read, the more frantic I got. I’d never babysat, never held an infant; the thought of a baby-tooth dangling by a bloody thread, repulsed me. Helping with homework? I never even did my own homework.

You see where I was hurtling: into a future where everything spiraled beyond my control.

Into my postpartum panic-attack walked a grey-haired maternity nurse who asked what was wrong. This – I swear – is what I answered: “Okay, one day a guy is gonna show up at our door on a motorcycle without a second helmet and I am going to tell her she’s not allowed to go with him and SHE [I point accusingly at infant in isolette] is going to tell ME to mind my own business… and she LEAVES. What do I do then? Huh? What THEN??”

Old Nurse saw she was dealing with a nutcase. She eyeballed the tower of books on my nightstand.  “I’d like to throw those out the window,” she said evenly.  I was shocked, confused, and by this point, weeping.

“Repeat after me,” Old Nurse commanded. “Four words: clean, fed, warm, dry.”

“Cleanfedwarmdry,” I hiccuped.

“Good. Because that’s all you need now. Your child will teach you everything else you need to know – and each stage will get you ready for the next.” With that, she shut the lights.

Cleanfedwarmdry became my mantra all through the bleary-eyed mystery-tour of early motherhood. I repeated it aloud until I could read every nuance of my daughter’s cries, each flicker of her brown-eyed gaze. Until she could tell me everything herself, in her own words.

But was Old Nurse right? Do the various milestones really empower you to tackle what’s ahead? Not always. Your kindergartener’s potty-mouth does not prepare you for a Facebook wall that shows her, 20 years hence, channeling Amy Winehouse. Learning that a 10-year-old needs math tutoring isn’t like learning a college kid needs a substance-abuse treatment program. Signing a middle-schooler’s detention slips is no training for bailing an adult child out of jail.

Indeed, baby-mommies. we too stumble and squint in the dark – into “cribs” that are often in cities where we don’t live, cribs with locked front doors for which we have no keys. And we keep checking, checking – are you still breathing? Will you be all right, trekking in Nepal? Taking on all those loans? LGBT, in a still-homophobic world? Losing your religion? Homeschooling your kids? Managing your diabetes? Tattooing your neck?

And if they’re not all right – what then? My elderly aunt has a saying: “A mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.” But one of my friends has three high-maintenance daughters in their 20s, and the drama’s nonstop. While she has good reason to be hopeful that things will be fine down the road, she has had to learn how to be happy today, even while her adult offspring are not. Experience has taught her to take little credit for their successes and limited blame for their shortcomings. Looks like no matter how fabulous (or flawed) we are as parents, a significant piece of who our children grow up to be, has been hard-wired in them since day one.

It’s all a bit of a mystery-tour, really.

Bearing this in mind, let’s throw these angst-y rookies – and ourselves – a bone. Go on, veteran moms, take a brief time-out from self-flagellation. Perform a public service and tell the baby-mamas something you think you did RIGHT.

I know it’s hard to sidestep the maternal walk of shame (last mom on the pickup line, all the permission-slips I lost, all my f-bombs!) and see beyond the mountain of regret, past those board games never played and chores unassigned. But what are some things – big or small – you’re glad you did, that  you’d do all over again (because you’re seeing them bear fruit)?

Okay, I’ll start.  I’m glad I: didn’t let my concerns about a perennially messy, “unfinished” house and mismatched tableware inhibit me from having a home where the door’s wide open – holidays celebrated, music played, dances danced – a place my kids could learn about both roots (heritage, family ties) and wings (diverse, multicultural, intergenerational relationships).

Your turn.

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