It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it
We’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me
One of the first things I noticed about my daughter when they placed her in my arms after delivering her was her ears. She had one ear that curved normally at the top, making a “C” shape, and another one that was pointy, like an elf’s. I noticed right away because I have the same ears. One curved, one elf-like. In that moment, it occurred to me that I had the ability to pass on to my child any one of my many charming attributes, including but not limited to: my inability to process street directions, my tendency to try to hydrate with iced coffee, my sad attempts at drawing anything resembling…anything. When you are handed your child for the first time, you are struck by how light they are. Warm body, bundled in one of those baby burritos so that they can’t fling their arms out. You think, what a nice little package: I’ve got this. We did it.
Nothing can prepare us for what is to follow. No number of books, or classes, or advice, or research. We are forever changed.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate an all-organic salad every day for lunch and attended jazzercise classes essentially up to delivery. I read every ingredient in my makeup and limited my drinking from plastic water bottles and straws. I read one book that suggested I “treat myself” to a squeeze of lemon in my water when I was feeling really special. I had not one sip of coffee.
I’m not sure what I was trying to do. Maybe win some kind of Pregnancy Perfection Olympics. I realize there are women who go through their pregnancies similarly because they actually want to—and I think I thought that I was one of those women. If you had asked me at the time, I would have assured you that yes, I loved reading about toxins and reverse osmosis water filters every night, because it was for my baby. My baby needed me to be aware of these things.
About a week before my due date, I developed a rash called PUPPS which sounds cute, but sadly is not. Picture raging poison ivy, but on a watermelon-sized pregnant belly with a protruding belly button. I lay in tepid oatmeal baths and scratched throughout the night. I sipped cranberry juice (organic, of course) so that I could feel her reassuring kicks. I waited.
The evening that finally went into labor (six days post due date) the contractions came on fast. One minute we were hanging out talking, my husband fiddling with our new ice cream maker, and the next minute my uterus felt like it was being squeezed into a vice. The sound of the ice cream churning went from mildly irritating to my wanting to throw the machine across the room. My husband reluctantly turned it off, probably annoyed that we wouldn’t have homemade ice cream to look forward to when we got home.
It took longer than I thought it would for the baby to arrive. I labored into the night and through the early morning hours, but with the magic of the epidural, I simply watched on a screen as my contractions supposedly peaked and then subsided, peaked and subsided, while I felt nothing. My husband slept soundly next to me on a chair. I was too excited to sleep.
I wasn’t expecting labor to be as, well, laborious as it was. Even though my adrenaline was pumping harder than ever, I was breathless and exhausted between pushes. It took all of my strength to bring the baby down. My husband held my hand and cheered me on, telling me how great I was doing. Even though it was the most natural thing in the world, the idea of pushing something so huge out of me seemed insane, and nearly impossible. At one point, a young, beautiful med student came in with another doctor so that she could “observe.” I could see from her face that she was transfixed, yet terrified. She brought out a mirror and asked if I’d like to see “what was going on down there.” I agreed and then quickly changed my mind. I sent her and her stupid mirror out of the room.
When the time came for the final push, the sunlight was shining bright through the window in our room. I watched as a nurse set out a hat with a bow on it and prepared a blanket under a warmer next to me. Suddenly, I realized something: I was going to be someone’s mother. Me. This person who occasionally still struggled with subtracting simple numbers in her head and who never learned to dive. This person who was still surprised each night when we needed to eat dinner (again.) This person who still hadn’t organized her drawers. I was going to be someone’s parent.
I turned to my husband and said, “I’m really scared. I’m not sure I can do this.” You can, he assured me. She’s almost here. You’ve got this. “No,” I said, “I’m not talking about the delivery, I’m talking about all of it. Like, raising a child. I don’t think I’m going to be any good at it. I don’t know how. What if we can’t do it?”
He looked at me calmly but bemused, as if to say, “Well it’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”
Our nurse, who was lovely and patient and smart, was listening. She smiled and said, “You guys are going to be great. I’m sure of it. You’re going to be a great mom.”
I smiled back at her and thanked her. My heart raced. It was really happening.
James Taylor, one of my favorites, was playing on our iPod as she came into the world. “Shower the people you love with love,” he said. “Show them the way that you feel. Things are gonna be much better if you only will.” I told myself I would remember his advice.
When I looked at Hannah’s face, it was like looking into my own. She had full lips, wide-set eyes, and those ears. There is something about a mother and her daughter. A mother and her son, too—but a mother and her daughter is heavy. Because she is as close to you as she can be, and yet, she is not you. It is important not to get confused. It’s hard not to—because of the ears. And as she grows—her voice, her walk, her laugh. They are all you. But they are not you.
Sometimes, when I look at my daughter, I can still see her same baby face inside her maturing, changing, young lady face. When she is studying something (she has always been a watcher, a thinker, full of caution) or when something catches her off-guard and she laughs unexpectedly. It is the same face she made as a toddler, when she was unsure of a new toy, or when I did something silly that struck her as funny. Because of that, I feel like I know her—all of her. I knew you when you needed to be rocked to sleep, I want to say. I knew you when you locked your underpants in a the safe when we were at the shore. I knew you when you lined up Disney princesses on the windowsills and took them with you wherever we went.
So when she comes downstairs in the morning and is grumpy and sullen, when she tells me she doesn’t want to live in a town like the one we live in because everything is the same and in a city you can be whoever you are and people don’t care, and she says she hates romantic comedies and getting dressed up, when she says she’ll never wear makeup or eat meat I want to say no. We don’t do these things. You’re doing it wrong.
And that is when I need to remind myself that she is doing it right. That even though I know her, I don’t know all of her. And my job is to watch in delight as she figures out who that is. It is tempting to tell her how things are done, what would make her happy, what will break her heart. But I only know those things as they apply to me. And that is scary, because it means that I don’t have the answers.
But at the same time, maybe it is better. I think that morning in the delivery room, what I was afraid of was not having the answers. I pictured a good mom as being some kind of expert on everything, from how to make pureed baby food to how to set a table to how to use a curling iron to how to write a college essay. A good mom always knows what to say, how to respond, what advice to give. She always gets up on time and makes nutritious breakfasts. She knows how to help her kids to be liked, and how to help them find friends they like. She never forgets her kids’ shoe sizes and always plans exciting day trips.
These things are all great, but they’re not necessary. It is our responsibility to feed our children, give them clothes, educate them, expose them to things that might interest them, encourage them, and love them. We can tell them what worked for us, and what didn’t. What we liked, and what we didn’t. We can share what helped us and what hurt us. What we did that we wouldn’t do again, and what we think changed our lives for the good. We can accept them as they are, and get excited about what they are excited about. We can set boundaries and expectations, so that they know they don’t have to be the parents yet.
Anything extra is unnecessary. It is fine, if it’s what we like to do and it truly brings us pleasure. But we have to be careful, because just as there is a Pregnancy Perfection Olympics, there is a Parenting Perfection Olympics, too. If we suddenly find ourselves manipulating and maneuvering our child’s friendships so that they hang out with “the right kids,” or entering them in pageants because that’s what we did and even though our child hates it, it will be good for her future, or making perfectly nutritiously sound dinners every night because “that’s what good moms do,” we may find ourselves less than satisfied with the outcome. Just like it felt good to me in the moment to not have a drop of caffeine during my pregnancy, it feels good to do what we’re telling ourselves we need to do to be good moms, as long as there’s some kind of payoff in the future. One day, our kids will appreciate our Pinterest-worthy crafts that we did with them, the music lessons we dragged them to, the elite team we signed them up for. Maybe…but likely not. If you are comfortable saying that your efforts are for you, because you just really like doing them, that is one thing. But counting on future appreciation is another.
About five months into breastfeeding my daughter, I noticed that I was getting depressed. I had been off of my antidepressant since before I got pregnant, and I had felt mostly fine. But nursing seemed to be affecting me chemically. It was like she was quite literally sucking the serotonin from me. I had a decision to make. I knew that the best thing for her was breast milk (did you know that that best thing for your baby is breast milk?) But my spotty mental health history told me that if I kept nursing, I would continue to spiral downward. I knew that I needed to stop.
It is in these moments as mothers when we are really put in a tight spot. Do we do what is best for our child, or what is best for us? The Perfection Olympics calls to us. But if I stop nursing, isn’t that the same as saying I’m choosing me over my child? What will that mean about me?
It will mean that you chose you over your child. It will mean that, starting very, very early, you showed her what it meant to be someone who prioritized your needs. That things don’t always work out the way we plan. That you are a human being who is unique and worth being cared for. That you wouldn’t sacrifice your own stability and sanity for some made up idea of what you should be. That you have feelings worth listening to. A life worth attending to.
It is through these tiny choices that we show our daughters (and sons) that we adore both them, and ourselves. And that we trust that they will be okay. Not because of who we are, but because of who they are.
No one could have prepared us for the love that we feel for our children. Sometimes, I love mine so much that it feels like my heart will explode. I look at them and I am struck by their innocence and wonder—so much to be excited about, surprised by, proud of. And with that comes disappointment, embarrassment, pain. I want to do all that I can to keep them from feeling the negatives. But I won’t. I will let them feel it. I will watch them breathe in and breathe out, knowing that it will pass. I will watch them go to sleep each night and wake up each morning, a new day awaiting them.