On the day I gave birth to our daughter, like all new parents-to-be, we came to the hospital equipped with a camera so we could capture this awesome moment. Jim spent the better part of my 14-hour labor carefully photographing (minus the really graphic stuff) our first-born’s arrival into the world. The unintentional photo below is the only evidence (besides the baby) that we were even at the hospital that day. Apparently, we neglected to remove the lens cap. That they let us take home a live human being when we couldn’t manage a simple camera operation is somewhat astonishing.
It’s 19 years later, and Katie is now a college freshman. Like most parents at this stage, I’m reflecting on how she’s been raised. Would I have done anything differently?
In the beginning, I was a huge devotee to all of the baby books du jour, strictly abiding by their lists of “must have” items. I outfitted my medicine cabinet with the $500 worth of goods that every new baby needed to survive, allegedly. The same lists are available for preparing your kid for college. A friend forwarded me one entitled “The Most Complete First Aid Kit for College Students, Ever!” It is written by a mom/Pharmacist, is four pages long, and includes about 400 items. I considered it for about a minute and tossed it. Instead, I made sure she was still covered by our health plan, threw some Advil and band aids in a kit, and added some condoms for good measure.
In the years between the baby books and the condoms, I like to think I’ve honed my parenting skills a bit. In my more confident moments, I imagined myself encapsulating all this wisdom into some brilliant tome. Something my kids could turn to for guidance when life gets messy. “The Most Complete List for Surviving Life, Ever!” I never got around to doing this. Clearly, some parents’ are just more efficient with their time.
We used to get these long holiday letters from acquaintances of ours with kids around the same age. In one particular letter, the mom waxed poetic about her kindergartener, evidently already reading at a 5th grade level. I’d sigh inwardly and stare at my daughter’s artwork, proudly taped to the fridge. A drawing of our family that only a mother could love. Alien-like stick figures with bugged out eyes, anatomically incorrect. Apparently, she should have been doing advanced reading. Only five years old, and already behind the eight ball. I’d yell into the other room, “Katie, turn off the TV and grab your book!” For what it’s worth, sadly, the family with the reading prodigy later imploded. So really, no one knows what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s easiest just to take cues from your kid.
Katie was just over a year old when she figured out how to escape from her crib. I was a bit dismayed at the time, as I anticipated at least another six months of lockdown. She just waltzed in to the kitchen one morning. No big deal. I put her back in so she could show me how she did it. She scaled the top, like a mini mountaineer, and shimmied her way down. Later that day, I bought her a toddler bed, though she didn’t really stay in that much either. She liked her freedom. She still does.
My daughter thought she could swim, before she actually could, prompting me to enroll her in group swim classes as soon as feasibly possible. The instructor would work with each kid individually, while the rest were supposed to hold on to the side of the pool. The other kids complied, but not my girl. She kept slowly taking her hands away, moving to the center of the pool, and then back. Smiling the whole time. Then she got too far out and couldn’t make it back, so she went under. The instructor didn’t see what happened. I was holding her baby sister, and couldn’t react fast enough. Another mom jumped in fully clothed and pulled her out. After that, I signed her up for private swim lessons. Her instructor loved her fearlessness, and today she is a confident swimmer.
I admit that sometimes I’d involve Katie in activities simply because I didn’t want her to miss out, versus it being a good fit for her personality. It is the bane of parents’ who were socially awkward as children (me): you will do anything to avoid that same fate for your kid. I don’t think any permanent damage was done to her, and some amusing times were had.
When the time came, I enrolled Katie in a local Brownie troop. I wasn’t much of a role model in this area, having failed to achieve a promotion to the Girl Scout sphere as a young girl. Nevertheless, I thought this would be a good social opportunity for her. We weren’t a terribly serious troop. Mainly, us moms just wanted the girls to have fun, maybe learn a value or two. Earn a badge here or there. But, we tried to do a few legitimate “scouty” things, such as organizing a safety lesson at the local fire station. The girls each had to name a type of burn. When it was Katie’s turn, in a clear voice she shouted, “rug burn”! The other girls giggled. The moms’ laughed in that way we do when a kid innocently utters something with subtle carnal undertones. I choose to believe it was clear evidence of her ability to think outside the box.
I can only speak for myself, but certain moments tend to clarify just what kind of parent you’ll be. In the early days of Katie’s babyhood, a friend said to me wistfully about breastfeeding, “don’t you just love it?” It took me a second to collect myself and come up with an appropriately enthusiastic response. “Yes, it’s very special”, I said. I chose to breastfeed my kids because there was no medical reason I couldn’t. But, my learning curve was steep and there were many anguished, exhausted tears. So no, I didn’t love it at first. I wasn’t going to tell my friend that though. Why subject myself to the potential judgment? Clearly, this was something I was supposed to really enjoy. Who knew?
It was at that instant that I realized there are two kinds of mothers. The kind that is so blissfully caught up in their baby that everything is a love fest. And then there is the kind who, while they love their child, is constantly challenged by their intrinsic lack of maternal ability. Frustrated to the point where they wonder if they’ve made a terrible error in judgment. I fell firmly into the second camp, and knew that I would forever be comparing myself to the blissed out moms.
On Katie’s high school graduation day last year, the texts were flying. Tearful messages of both melancholy and hope. There were sentiments about not wanting to grow up, latent anger at the college admissions process, and frustrations about the valedictorian selection. These texts were not from my daughter or any one in her age bracket. They were from my friends who also had kids graduating that day. As with the intense adoration I should have felt for nursing, likewise, I guess I should have been awash in sentimental tears at graduation. I wasn’t. I didn’t cry. What I felt that day was a sort of cosmic, prideful, relief. Like I could exhale a little because I had actually managed to parent her to this right of passage (yes, my husband was there, but this is my blog). And, it finally became okay that my path to doing so wasn’t like everybody else’s (I’m a slow learner).
I suppose if my daughter were asked, she might have a few constructive suggestions for things I could have done differently. I don’t know. Some of my parenting decisions were made with scientific precision; others were of the “close my eyes and jump” variety. They all added up to who she’s become today: a smart, funny, self-sufficient person, who has never been afraid to express her point of view. I’m not sure if this is because of how she was parented, or in spite of it, but the clues were there early on.
A very young Katie once greeted friends arriving at our home with the following pronouncement: “you shouldn’t say fuck.” She may have known curse words, but she knew you shouldn’t use them. In hindsight, I’d put this firmly in the parenting “win” category. I can’t imagine why I would have done anything differently.