The Right Answer
A letter introducing my kids to their neurotic mom.
Dear Joey and June,
When you were first born, Joey, I didn’t leave the house for six months. Oh, sure, I ran small errands here and there — I mean, we had to buy food and rent Redbox DVD’s. But mostly, I stuck to my cave, where I felt safe, because I could control my environment. Granted, you were born in the middle of winter, so it was a bit cold to freewheel around town or do anything outdoors. But I wasn’t afraid of the cold. I was afraid of other people.
You’ve probably learned by now that I don’t like to make mistakes (nobody really does), but I particularly don’t like to make very public mistakes. What if I make a mistake with you while we’re in public, and someone calls me out? I’d feel so devastated and embarrassed! I mean, I’m your mom, I should really know what I’m doing… but the truth is, I oftentimes feel incredibly lost and clueless about what you need, or what’s best for you. What if someone sees that? What if someone discovers that I’m a fraud?!
You’ll find, should you choose to one day procreate, that everybody has opinions about babies — whether or not you should have them, how many you should have, how best to give birth, how best to feed them, how to get them to sleep, or wake them up, how to discipline them, and educate them — it’s a madhouse of opinions out there, and very few folks are squeamish about sharing them (whether you like it or not). I realize now that many of these folks are simply well-meaning bystanders with a wealth of knowledge gained from raising their own kids, who now have nowhere to dispense that knowledge. Once a kid pops out of you, or you father a kid who pops out of someone else, you suddenly want to help others along their parenting path by sharing the things that helped you through. You’ll meet some unsuspecting pregnant couple, and the “wisdom” will come pouring out of you, completely unbidden. Except, to them, it’s a bunch of annoying blathering.
It’s hard to really hear wisdom, or receive help (even well-meaning help) from others when you aren’t ready to hear it, and at 28 years old, mothering my first newborn, I was not. You see, first, I needed to get to know myself as a mother. This may come as a shock to you, but I was an entirely other person before you were born. I rarely interacted with babies, and I was actually pretty afraid of them. They’re messy, stinky, and they cry a lot for completely unknown reasons. I had no idea how to handle all of that intense emotion flying at me.
When my internal clock started ticking, and I became pregnant with you, I assumed that annals of motherly wisdom would immediately download into my brain the second you emerged from the womb. I heard stories (again, from many well-meaning mothers) about the “joy” and “fulfillment” and “warm fuzzies” that accompanied the birth of children, and I felt excited for that. I never read a single baby book, ever. I figured I’d rather experience my own journey than hear about someone else’s, and after all, my biological motherly instincts would switch on, and then I’d be set.
Well, that isn’t exactly what happened. What actually happened is that I numbly pushed you out with the help of many drugs, they plopped you on my chest, covered you with a blanket, and you and I stared at each other for a good, long while. The nurses said we were bonding, but I have a feeling you were looking into my shocked, fearful face, thinking, “If THIS is the chick in charge of caring for me, I want to talk to management.” My only thoughts were, “Wow, newborns are purple, that’s weird! Um, now what?”
I waited for the instincts to kick in, for the light to switch on. The three days we stayed in the hospital blurred around me. Nurses instructed me on feeding, bathing, clothing, and diapering you. I heard maybe 25 percent of their instruction. In my exhausted stupor, all I felt was embarrassed. Shouldn’t I know this stuff? Aren’t I the one who knows best about my own baby?
Maybe motherly instinct isn’t really a thing, or maybe mine got lost in the mail, or sent to the wrong address and deposited into another unsuspecting mom who handled all of it better than me. My life and expectations had the rug pulled out from under them, and I couldn’t let anybody see that. So, I remained a hermit for a good part of your first year of life.
Eventually, I gained my footing. I realized, after the post-natal hormones flushed out of me, that becoming a mother is a journey along a learning curve, and for some (like me), that curve is practically a vertical line. I had a baby, and instead of feeling more self-assured and adult, I felt every bit as insecure, unworthy, and lost as I did at 14. Once again, I was an “outsider,” who couldn’t figure out motherhood, find the right answers, or feel what I was supposed to feel (whatever that was).
Okay, so here’s where I impart my glorious life and parenting wisdom that travels into one ear and out the other; here’s the answer to all of your questions about how best to approach life: there are no right answers. That’s it. You don’t have to have all of the answers from Day One, and the best answers for you will be so different from those for somebody else. The trick is to do it all your way. Everyone and their mom (pun intended) will offer you unsolicited advice on everything under the galldarn sun, and you know what you should do with it? Say “thank you,” toss away the pieces that don’t feel appropriate for you, and keep the ones that do.
There is no entity out there giving medals for following every piece of advice, for feeding your kids cucumbers instead of fruit snacks, or for getting married instead of staying happily single, if that’s your jam. If everyone on your block is having 2.5 kids and driving Suburbans, or vacationing in the Alps, or brewing their own kombucha tea, that’s fantastic — but what do you feel like doing? What sort of relationships do you want to make? How do you want to live your life? Because, the truth is, this is your life, not anybody else’s. You get one shot at this thing, so to hell with all of the well-meaning advice, to hell with the comparisons, to hell with the way you’re expected to do things!
In case you needed permission, or a personal champion for your cause, I’m saying it to you now: DO IT YOUR WAY.
All my love,