Thursday, March 19, 2009

This gets me every time...

I'm sitting here posting this through tears because I just re-read this Anna Quindlen essay again. I'm reading it on the heels of reading the Rosin article I just posted about and all the wonderful comments that followed that post, and so now it's like I'm seeing it with fresh eyes.

It's hard to pick a favorite line from this essay, but I think right now my favorite is this:

"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."

It seems like this should be some sort of "goal" (for lack of a better word) of motherhood...right? To end up with people you "like best in the world?" Doesn't that make breast milk sort of seem like a grain of sand on the beach of childhood? That's a rhetorical question--I don't want to spark another debate. ; )

Here's the rest of the essay...get the tissues handy!

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 poured 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, have 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 child is toilet trained at 3, his sibling 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. 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 some thing 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 pick up. 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 onto 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.



5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm always so intimidated even to write on here my feelings or opinions. Wow, she says it so eloquently. I made so many mistakes and wonder how our boys made it with all the things done wrong, but I am so proud of the four young men that carry our last name. I'm sure they bacame who they are in spite of us much of the time. But, they are loving, caring, responsible young men with a wonderful work ethic and love their families and each other. (You might not have thought that possible on some days as they were growing up.)I fully believe that God made up for my shortcomings in the most precious job in the world.
Sarah

Anonymous said...

This is a powerful essay which I completely identify with. But, I think all you blogging moms are doing a far better job than we did in living in the moment with your families. As you go about your lives you are recording what you ate and what was said along with the photographs. I am very confident that when the day comes (and it will come) when they are all grown up, you will find, as Anna and I did, they are the people you like best in the world!
Mimi

Bradley said...

Despite being an avid mommytown follower, I don't typically post comments. But I read the Atlantic article the other night and thought of you. When I finished I thought, "Whoa! Elizabeth would be fired up about this." And, sure enough, a mommytown shout-out. Even though I'm not a breast-feeding mom I always love the posts and I'm convinced I'll learn or thing or two from you for future reference(if nothing else, a Hot Rob's recipe). See you all soon. - Bradley

Julie said...

Where did you find the Anna Quindlen essay?

Elizabeth said...

Hi Julie,

I can't remember where I saw it originally...maybe it was in the newspaper a long time ago? I googled it to find it again. I keep meaning to look up Anna Quindlen's books and see if it's published in one of those. Maybe someday when I have unlimited computer time I'll get around to it. For now, I'm only allowed to type for about 5 minutes, before someone asks me for food or to play computer games. ugh.