We were exhausted and exuberant when we brought Daniel home from the hospital intensive care following some complications in his birthing center debut. We were also wildly ignorant, especially about what we were wildly ignorant about from the complex and profound, to the ordinary and necessary. So when Joy dropped within hours of us landing at home, just in time to change his diaper, I paid close attention.
We had cloth diapers, what we carefully researched and planned, but for the last week, it was disposable ones. Now it was time. “Let me,” she said, and I studied her every move in folding the diaper and how she inserted the safety pins to avoid sticking herself or him. As soon as she left, I called out to Ken, “I just figured out how to diaper the baby!” He rushed over, “Show me before you forget,” neither one of us having had a clue before she arrived.
This is just the first of thousands of mothering hacks I picked up along the way, which was important because my usual ways of learning things by reading books didn’t work out so well when Daniel was born. My experience of being a mother who suddenly found her baby encased in a plexiglass neo-natal unit box with all manner of tubes coming out of him just didn’t match the pile of books I had read to prepare myself. Then this first child, as he grew into a speeding and singing toddler, continued to defy convention, so much so that I actually ripped up a mothering book into tiny shreds one day out of exasperation.
Instead of books and the conventional wisdom of the day, I found my answers through family and friends to questions such as:
- “Will he ever sleep through the night?” Answer: “Eventually.”
- “How do I sleep through the night and still nurse on demand?” Answer: “Put that baby beside you, plug him in when he wakes up, then go back to sleep.”
- “When should I feed him solid food?” Answer: “When he grabs it off your plate.”
- “Which daycare, school, and which teacher?” Answer: “This one, and that one.”
- “Is this when I call the doctor?” Answer: “Not yet,” or “Yes!”
- “Should I let her join a soccer team just because she wants the trophy?” Answer: “It can’t hurt, and she’ll get good exercise along the way and learn more about teamwork.”
- “What is this rash?” Multiple answers involving roseola, heat rash, poison ivy, and reaction to insect bites.
- “How can I make him be a better student?” Answer: “You have no control over what kind of student he’ll be.”
- “What if she doesn’t want to wear clothes right now?” Answer: “As long as you’re not leaving the house, pick your battles.”
- “Is it okay to have ice cream for dinner when it’s 100 degrees?” “That’s what I’m doing tonight.”
- “Am I doing too much or being too controlling?” Answer: “If you have to ask, probably.”
- “Am I screwing this whole mothering thing up?” Answer: “We all feel that way. You’re doing fine.”
- “How will we ever get through _____ (fill in the blank)”? “This too shall pass.”
- Most of all, “Is this normal?” Answer: “Yes,” or “Who the fuck cares!”
Since our oldest son was born close to 28 years ago, I’ve hit the wall on this mothering thing more times than Trump has tweeted. But I’ve had great role models to help me find the path through the bramble, hand me clippers to clear some of the bramble away, or console me on how it’s normal to be very lost on no notice so often. From my own mother, I learned the value of perspective and humor through hundreds of conversations when she burst out laughing, reminding me that kids doing this or that was completely part of the deal, and in time, things shift. From my mother-in-law, I’ve witnessed the power of unconditional love, a good rocking chair, and Shirley Temple videos.
Dixie taught me I could get Forest to sleep by counting backgrounds from 1,000 each night, naming each 10 numbers for one animal (999 sheep, 998 sheep….). Weedle showed me the importance of game nights, and especially the games “Taboo” and “Apples to Apples.” Kat and Nancy exemplified how sharing stories of your wild young adulthood could make your kids rebel by being less dare-devily in the all the worst ways. Kelley told me stories of how her mother gave her freedom to create. Kris reminded me on many a brunch at the Roost how the human brain isn’t fully developed until the kid is at least 25, and when I called her freaking out about my worries about my something my kids did, she shrugged and reminded me how we did crazier shit. Judy listened deeply however long it took. My sister-in-law Karen continually modeled deep generosity and engagement, especially when the child in question feels isolated or confused. My sister Lauren reminded me of the importance of making everyone feel welcome. Victoria laughed with me at the outrageous corners, and helps me tilt whatever worries I have toward greater light. Suzanne demonstrated how essential both adventure and gardening are in a life. There are surely dozens others I could name, but all these women have given me another line or page in the book I’m living on how to be a mother.
So on this Mother’s Day, I’m indebted to all this lantern holders along many a dark path full of ticks, projectile vomiting at 2 a.m., chiggers, overdue library books, sudden immersions into diseases I never knew more than the names of before, listening to the cassette tapes of The Wizard of Oz on many a road trip, late-night trips to the drug store, and a thousand drawings from adoring children who also gift-wrapped forks to show their love. Thank you, and may all of us find such help when we most need it no matter what or who we’re mothering or being mothered by in our lives.