On Being a Mom
by Anna Quindlen
If not for the photographs, I might have a hard time believing they Â ever existed. The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the Â black button eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the Â yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the Â lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin.
All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in Â disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three Â almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people Â 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 Â vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor Â blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed Â more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their Â 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 Â its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible Â except through the unreliable haze of the past. Everything in all the Â books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Â Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping Â through the night and early-childhood education, all grown obsolete. Â Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are Â battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the Â pages dust would rise like memories.
What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the Â playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations –what they Â 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 Â becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it Â is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to Â positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice Â and a timeout.
One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at 2. When my first child Â was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he Â would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, Â babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden Â infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is Â terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust Â yourself. Eventually the research will follow. I remember 15 years ago Â poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child Â development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants:
average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for Â an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his Â fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Â Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Â Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk Â just fine. He can walk too.
Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes Â were made. They have all been enshrined in the Â Remember-When-Mom-Did-Hall-of-Fame. The outbursts, the temper Â tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell
off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The Â nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the Â youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her Â geography test, and I responded, “What did you get wrong?” (She
insisted I included that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s Â drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from Â the window. (They all insisted I included that.) I did not allow them Â 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 Â doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly Â clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There Â is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in Â 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 Â they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I Â had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, Â bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and Â the getting it done a little less. Even today I’m not sure what worked Â and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were Â very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they Â were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into Â their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back Â off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often Â tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how Â it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the Â world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential Â 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 Â figure out who the experts were.