This past week I’ve had the pleasure of a lot of visiting babies: four children under four, the youngest a beguiling 3-month old. Children and grandchildren of friends, they took me back to a time in my life when my own kids were young, more than twenty-five years ago. Back to a time when I was always tired and hungry. To when I took great (and likely false) pride in my patience. To when I was infinitely more afraid.
I remember standing in the driveway of our old suburban home, pitching balls for unending games of baseball when my kids and neighbor kids were too young to pitch to each other. I remember many, many games of Candyland. I remember eternal bedtime rituals. Of course I also remember wonderful times: vacations, milestones, small and absolutely sacred moments. But throughout my children’s early days I promised myself one thing: Do not idealize this when you are older and they have moved away and you miss them.
They have moved away. Far away. And I do miss them. But I don’t idealize what it was like when they were young.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a lover of children. In my old neighborhood, it was always the small children and animals who came to my door. Among my visitors these past few days was a little boy who is now almost four. We spent an afternoon together just about weekly for two years–from the time he was born until his family made a very good move (for them) to a far-away state.
When he left, it was like someone obliterated a piece of my heart. I did not expect to be so terribly sad. It took me weeks (maybe months) to feel like myself again. When he and his family returned to our home this week, I don’t think he remembered me per se–although he did remember the bathroom. But when it was time to pack up on the last day, he curled up in a ball and said he didn’t want to leave. I like to think it was the feeling of me he remembered, if not me.
But this honest, heartfelt affection–in fact, I’ll call it a fierce personal call to listen to, guide and protect children, in all of their vulnerabilities–does not influence the promise I made to my younger self. I will always champion the incredibly difficult work of the days (and nights) of caring for children, and the moms and dads, aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas, and childcare workers who do it.
The fatigue alone was often debilitating, as I saw again in my friend with the three-month old. She feeds the baby every 2-3 hours, every night, and then “wakes” to the care of him and his 2-1/2 year-old sister. And what about the 24/7 aspect of the job under any circumstances–like when one child is up all night sick (as are you–up and likely sick, too) and the other kid(s) expect business as usual the next day? Or the simple exhaustion that comes from having not a minute to yourself?
Fatigue, and hunger. I was either pregnant or nursing a child for a period of about 4 years in my late-twenties/early-thirties. I distinctly remember the first time, immediately after my second child was weaned, when I looked at the graham crackers I was handing out to my kids and any number of neighbor children and didn’t automatically shove two or three in my mouth. It was probably about the same time I realized my heightened sense of alertness–why, a feeling of of downright optimism!–was because a) I’d consumed enough calories, and b) I’d slept all night, without interruption, for a few nights in a row. That hadn’t happened in years.
And about that patience thing: Two of my young mother friends demonstrated such patience with their children this week I commended them for it. And yet each offered a similar response: “Oh, but if you could see me/hear me on a bad day…”. Well, here’s what I say: If, e.g., you lost it when your child was melting down, and instead of being the calm, even-toned and even-tempered caregiver of your dreams you were a screaming banshee, try thinking of it this way–you gave your kid a chance to practice real world skills, like falling apart and putting him or herself together again. If I could do it over, I might actually be less patient with my children. All that sanctimony was hard on me (never mind the people around me) and didn’t give my kids important chances to fail. In the case of an occasional melt-down with no adult patiently talking them through it, a child can practice recovering in their own way, with their own power and skills.
And yet I am grateful for the departure of none of these things–fatigue, hunger, the conceit of superhuman patience–as much as I am for the exit of fear from every passing minute of every day. And night. It was my specialty, I have come to believe. And it undid me, like nothing I have ever known before, or since.
If you ask, Fear of what?, you’d probably better stop reading here. And if you do know what I mean (i.e., fear of air, water, food, roads, cars, people–well, you get it) please read on.
Because it was foolish. And unnecessary. And it didn’t work. Scary things still happened, and keep on happening. My children, in the end, grew up fine. Pretty much, anyway. I think. And moved away. Far away. My anxiety didn’t endear me to them in any way and it is, in fact, remarkably egotistical (bordering on mentally ill) to think anything good comes from that much worry.
Did I mention my grown children now live very far away?
If I ever have grandchildren, if I ever am allowed to see said future grandchildren, I can tell you I will love them (OK, I already love them) ferociously. But I’m quite fine waiting for them. I feel like a have a window here, a window of non-worry. I find that in my fiction writing I can act out all sorts of drama, plague my characters with problems other people might never consider, dream up disaster after horrendous disaster with ease. It’s a talent I have, like I said. When writing instructors say You have get your characters in trouble, I’m on it.
You wouldn’t believe how much energy I have, without all that fear and worry about real-world small children in my direct care.
Or maybe you would.