(Photo by our sweet friend Emily)
As of last month, I’ve been a mother for a decade.
I can’t tell you how foreign that sentence feels to my fingers, as nubbly and impenetrable as Braille. “You must have been a young mother!” friends and neighbors say, and the fact is that I still am. This is especially true by Italian standards, where most women don’t start thinking of babies until they’re comfortably settled into their 30s. I feel young in terms beyond age though. Even here in my own comfortable 30s, I’m taken aback by my lack of expertise at each new parenting stage. It’s like being handed a pop quiz called “Congratulations! Despite the fact that you did not expressly condone the passage of time, nor have you had longer than twenty seconds to get used to the idea, your child is now a tween. How are you going to parent her?” and being told that your GPA for life depends on your answer.
(Apparently test anxiety is my go-to analogy for parenthood.)
You may either relate or conclude that I need Xanax when I tell you that my heart clenches up on itself every night when we tiptoe in to check on the girls. One is always nested down inside her covers while the other is sprawled in a modern dance pose on top of hers, and I start to ache immediately. It’s not just because great swaths of time are slipping by disguised as ordinary days, though there’s certainly an element of “Sunrise, Sunset” to it all. It’s more that—to me—love has always been closely linked to fear of failure.
It shares a spot in my top five fears alongside clowns, spiders, dementia, and Jack Nicholson’s grin. The more I love someone, the more terrified I become that association with me will be his or her great undoing. This isn’t based on any kind of logic; it’s more a knee-jerk reaction of the soul, a seesaw ride with perfectionism and the gospel of low self-esteem. Never is it stronger than when I look down at my sleeping girls and see the trust pooled just where their eyelashes brush their cheeks. I’d thought I would be more inured to this after a decade.
Fortunately, one bit of parenting wisdom that I came across when Natalie was a newborn still holds true at ten years in: Keep her clean, fed, safe, and loved; the rest is incidental. That line of thought put a merciful end to my angst when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment and our baby didn’t even have her own diaper pail much less her own princess-themed nursery. These days, it’s soothing my angst over how much screen time to allow* and what extracurricular activities to pursue and which tweenage fads might be gateways to meth. (Rainbow Loom, I’m looking at you.)
*As I understand it, the formula for insuring your child remains technologically on par with her peers while retaining her imagination and the majority of her brain cells is Pn=∆x [f(x0)+4f(xn-1)+f(xn)]/3-∫abf(x) where x is the number of minutes that your child would willingly play Minecraft each day, f is the force vector of whining to sanity on a mortal human parent, and n is the current price per barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon. You’re welcome.
When I was pregnant with Natalie, I showed up at my second prenatal appointment armed with a typed, MLA-formatted list of questions for my ob-gyn. It was full of gems like, I know you said X brand of antihistamine was safe to take, but we’re staying with friends who own cats, and I’m worried that prolonged antihistamine use will hurt the baby, but I’m also worried that I’ll accidentally sneeze her out or something, and also I might be extra-killing her when I put lunch meat on my sandwich? I still remember the doctor’s laugh, kind but genuinely amused.
“I have patients who smoke crack every day of their pregnancies,” he said. “And nine times out of ten, their babies turn out just fine.”
It was nearly the opposite sentiment of the book I’d been reading (What Kinds of Harm to Expect From Totally Normal Foods, Activities, and Social Interactions When You’re Expecting, 2002 edition), and it took some time to acclimate to the idea that my child wasn’t so fragile after all, that my love for her and my good intentions really did carry weight. I’m still trying to get my head all the way around it. The good news is that kids are excellent teachers. The best, really. They’re repetitive and patient, and if you don’t feel like a proper grownup yet after a decade of parenting… well, what of it?
You’ve kept them clean, fed, safe, and loved silly. The rest is incidental.