‘Mommy’ — It’s Priceless

This is an old favorite of ours — an essay written by Anna Quindlen that resonates for those who are saying goodbye to the college-bound and those who aren’t anywhere near there yet. It says exactly who we are in our deepest mommy beings. Savor it.

Mommy

By Anna Quindlen

If not for the photographs, I might have a hard time believing they ever

existed. The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the black

button eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets

and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled

into an apostrophe above her chin.  ALL MY BABIES are gone now.  I say this

not in sorrow but in disbelief.

I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two

taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books

I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their

opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I

choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to

keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the

bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by

themselves.

Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its

center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except

through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now.

Penelope Leach. T. Berry Brazelton. Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry

and sleeping through the night and early childhood education, all grown

obsolete. Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are

battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages

dust would rise like memories.

What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground

taught me, and the well-meaning relations — what they taught me was that

they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is

presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until

finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything.

One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed

only with a stern voice and a timeout. One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at

2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so

that he would not choke on his own spit-up.  By the time my last arrived, babies

were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death

syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then

soothing.  Eventually you must learn to trust yourself.  Eventually the research

will follow.

First science said environment was the great shaper of human nature.  But it

certainly seemed as though those babies had distinct personalities, some

contemplative, some gregarious, some crabby. And eventually science said

that was right, and that they were hard-wired exactly as we had suspected.

Still, the temptation to defer to the experts was huge. The literate parent,

who approaches everything — cooking, decorating, life — as though there

were a paper due or an exam scheduled, is in particular peril when the kids

arrive.

How silly it all seems now, the obsessing about language acquisition and

physical milestones, the riding the waves of normal, gifted, hyperactive,

all those labels that reduced individuality to a series of cubbyholes. But I

could not help myself. I had watched my mother casually raise five children

born over 10 years, but by watching her I intuitively knew that I was

engaged in the greatest and potentially most catastrophic task of my life. I knew

that there were mothers who had worried, with good reason, that there were

children who would have great challenges to meet.

We were lucky: ours were not among them. Nothing horrible or astonishing

happened.  There was hernia surgery, some stitches, a broken arm and a

fuchsia cast to go with it. Mostly ours were the ordinary everyday terrors

and miracles of raising a child, and our children’s challenges the old

familiar ones of learning to live as themselves in the world. The trick was

to get past my fears, my ego and my inadequacies to help them do that.

I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books

on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of

infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil

for an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat

little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he

developmentally delayed, physically challenged?  Was I insane? Last year he

went to China. Next year he goes to college.  He can talk just fine. He can

walk, too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were

made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of

Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not

theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for

preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day

when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her

geography test, and I responded, What did you get wrong? (She insisted I

include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through

speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all

insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the

first two seasons. What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing

this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now

that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture

of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the

swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what

we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked

when they slept that night.  I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on

to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing

a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what

was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they

would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they

simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways

that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was

often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top.

And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best

in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential

humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to

learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts

were.



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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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One response to “‘Mommy’ — It’s Priceless”

  1. Dr Efrat Schorr

    What an inspiring articulation of the wonder and challenge of motherhood! So honest and heartfelt. I will try so hard to keep this wisdom in mind in the day-to-day commotion of dinner, baths, and bedtimes.
    Dr Efrat Schorr
    HearingFamilies.com

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