When I was pregnant with my first child I had no idea what being a parent would be like. I moved through the months of changes in my body with awe and amazement, from the first butterfly flutter of movement in my abdomen to the definite thud of tiny feet and hands. I was so young I didn’t really consider my expectations about motherhood, but I do remember the first time my newborn was brought to me in the hospital, wrapped in a tight little blue blanket, looking and smelling like he had been freshly dry-cleaned. I sat in bed looking into his perfect little baby face feeling like Mary holding the Christ child. When I brought him to my breast and the sweet little rosebud mouth latched on to nurse I was earth goddess, with nourishment flowing from my very soul. After about 5 minutes of this fantasy he let rip the most horrendous gassy noise, filling his diaper and turning that lovely baby powder smell to a sour stench. After I got over the shock of the moment, I started laughing at myself. Seems like my little flight of the imagination had not taken into account the reality of an actual live human being. Even after the 12 hour labor with all it’s accompanying indignities and discomforts, and then the final frantic rush of an emergency C-section, here was the moment I became a flesh and blood mother instead of the soft out of focus dream variety.
The actuality of our children does come as a surprise. We daydream about what they will be like and what our reaction to them will be, so it is a bit of a shock when they turn out to have the same proportion of faults and strengths as we do ourselves. Raising a real human rather than the fantasy one is a humbling experience, making us face things in our own character we would just have soon left undiscovered. When I was carrying my daughter I had a friend who was expecting shortly after me. This was her first and only venture into motherhood, having started a bit late in life with her second husband, a man who was supporting his two from a first marriage. My friend had just as many opinions on rearing children as she did on every other subject. I grew a bit weary listening to the constant stream of subtle and not so subtle criticism directed at how I was rearing my two boys, and how superior she would be when her little carbon copy arrived. The child had her diet, toys, friends, and career picked for her in utero. No candy, cookies, or sweets ever, and if grandmothers did not comply they would not be allowed to see the child. No dolls for her girl, only educational toys of a more masculine nature to prepare her to take her place in the high stakes world of tomorrow. Private school, so she would meet a better class or people, hopefully descendants of Pilgrims and Presidents, then on to an Ivy league university. She would study to be a doctor, and not just any doctor; she had the specialty all picked out, ear, eye, nose and throat. I forget why, money probably. Her husband, as down to earth and practical man as you would ever want to meet, said without expression, “The whole world is waiting for you to have this baby dear.”
I was on the phone with her when her water broke. I knew that because she started screaming and it took me a while to talk her down. My own newborn was in my arms and my 2 year old was playing on the floor, so my physical presence wasn’t going to be particularly helpful. I told her to hang up the phone and call her husband and the doctor, but not to panic (the universal admonishment), because she would have plenty of time before the baby arrived. She called me back 10 minutes later to ask me what she should wear to the hospital. I told her it wasn’t necessary to make a fashion statement, but she might want to grab a towel for the car seat before she left.
She called me the next day from the hospital to tell me her baby girl was the most beautiful one in the nursery, and I told her I was sure she was. That would not be a lie. After spending many hours in labor to push something as large as a cantaloupe through an opening normally the size of a soda straw, the effort causes a photo shop glow to form around the object of that exertion, and temporally blinds the mother to all but her own offspring. When I was introduced, I the first thing I noticed were the Dumbo like ears sticking out from the bare little football shape head that newborns acquire on their tortured route through resisting flesh and bone. Mom was standing there with a beatific medicated smile and Dad had the shell-shocked look of a man just recaptured after a jailbreak. I kept my congratulatory statements vague and diplomatic.
In about six months the baby turned into a fairly decent looking infant, and after many years she became a beautiful young woman. In the intervening time my friend, the micro manager, did everything she could to enforce the rules she had made, but to little avail. The child turned out to have the inflexible temperament of her mother, constantly begged for snacks and sweets, was sent to the office on the very first day of kindergarten, struggled with her school studies, hung out with a bad crowd in high school, and decided she didn’t want to got to college. When the child came to our house she played joyfully with my daughter’s endless supply of pink plastic girl toys, the ones I let my child pick out for herself. Once her Mom suggested we should go back to her house to play, but the wee one protested that there was nothing to do at home. When my girl went to get cookies for a tea party, Mom had a look of panic on her face, but finally relented. We sat down with coffee and my friend related regrets about her own wasted childhood where she ate a lot of sweets and snacks, struggle with her school work, hung out with a bad crowd, and decided against college. I bit my tongue, offered her a fourth cookie, and held my laughter until she went home.
It is a shock when our children come to us not a blank slate for us to write on, but wired with abilities and personality often similar to our own, our spouses, or even the in-laws we deal with only grudgingly. I was not immune to this discovery process. Once I was lamenting to my mother about the amazing musical talent my middle child had on the violin and how frustrating it was that he never practiced.
“I had really hoped one of my children would become an accomplished musician,” I said to Mom with a sigh.
“I always wished the same thing myself” she retorted.
Being a good parent is learning how to let go, first of your belief that your child will be perfect, then the hope they will be like you only much better, then the misconception that they are yours to mold at all. Somewhere between diapers and dating I relaxed, gave up my expectations, and really began to enjoy being a Mom. There were dark days when I abandoned all but hope. That is when I realized the essence of the parental role; give them unconditional love, keep advice to a minimum, and if you can stand it, let natural consequences be their teacher. Just when you finally get the knack of the parent thing, they are on their way out the door, suitcase in hand, eager to make the same stupid mistakes you did when you were young. Despite all I’ve learned, and how differently I reared my own brood, it what really kills me knowing now that my mother was right when she said, “You won’t understand until you have children of your own.”