I’ve been (particularly) emotional lately …things are ending. I am not necessarily referring to the End of the World, which the Mayans apparently scheduled-by-not-scheduling for later this year, though I have to say that the deaths of Whitney Houston, Maurice Sendak, Vidal Sassoon, AND Donna Summer in the same year have me a bit edgy. What could that MEAN?
Lizzie, my youngest, turned five yesterday. Of course the early childhood years are intense for everyone …the nursing, the sadomasochistic sleep schedules (theirs and ours), the laundry, the temper tantrums (theirs and ours), the saccharine tv shows, the aggressive bitches who show up at preschool dropoff in full hair and makeup, the vomit, the blood, the tinkle, the poop, the tears (theirs and ours), the pining for our former lives, the very real fear that Child and Family Services are on their way, the diapers, the permanent Lego and Squinky and sparkly bead engravings on our feet.
Even when nothing goes seriously wrong, the early years with kids are enough to rattle most of us. In the midst of the Standard Mama Experience, one of mine started having rare seizures on a December night as we pulled her out of the bathtub. She was two. We did weeks of steroid shots, tried I-don’t-know-how-many scary medications for the next three months, had several hospital slumber parties that weren’t nearly as fun as you’re imagining them to be, then had the right temporal lobe of her brain removed in a nine-hour surgery at Mayo Clinic when she was three.
Even when nothing goes seriously wrong, the early years with kids are enough to rattle most of us.
All of this while I was still supposed to be Mama to a sensitive, dreamy five-year-old boy and a passionate, stubborn 1 1/2-year-old girl. So can we all just agree I had a bigger rock to roll up the hill than most Mamas? I did …partly because of what was happening to my Caroline, partly because of what was happening to our family, and partly because of what was happening to me. I don’t know what fed what — that’s one of those chicken and egg questions that mamas of tiny children don’t have time for.
But now Lizzie (the passionate, stubborn baby –who KNOWS where she gets those qualities?) is five. Not quite ready for summer employment on an Alaskan fishing boat, perhaps, but able to poke her own straw through the hole in her juice pouch without spraying juice everywhere, able to choose her own bold fashion ensembles, and able to sing soulful and expressive (if ever-so-slightly off-tune) renditions of most Disney songs. She still needs me to snuggle her and scratch her back after she’s had one of her intimidating Corleone tantrums, but she doesn’t need me to feed her. Reason isn’t exactly featured in her personal philosophy but she is able, for the most part, to comprehend it. She is five. She is not a baby anymore.
The baby years are over for all three of my children. That fact has been traveling through my nervous system for the last month or so, lighting it up with hope and wonder and possibilities in this minute, then flooding it in the next with longing for those lumpy, helpless beings who fell asleep at my breast, dreaming (I assume) of their former lives as explorers or priestesses or fortune tellers.
I will want to rescue them in those moments, move mountains and crush enemies and give them the world. But I will want that for me, not for them, so I’ll force myself to resist the maternal heroics.
It’s getting harder to find the babies I started with in the faces of the children I have now. Henry is nine, experimenting with obscure Greek and Egyptian mythology jokes he writes himself and going off on week-long camping trips with his dad and grandpa to the Boundary Waters. I assume he will return after this summer’s trip with a full beard. Caroline is six –creative and theatrical and quite possibly very bright despite the tumor and seizures. We’ll know when we know and it doesn’t matter to me either way –I got to keep her; I will never forget to be grateful for that. And now Lizzie, my babiest baby, is five –social and emotional and funny. They’re real people, growing up and away.
This is as it should be –you’ll never hear me say I don’t ever want them to go out on their own. I do, though I want that for them, not for me. I want them to have close, deep friendships so they can sit in their rooms and talk about what a nightmarish disappointment I am as a mother. I want them to experience epic, mind-blowing failure; devastating, unrequited love; crushing, faith-testing disappointment. When these calamities befall them, I will want to rescue them in those moments, move mountains and crush enemies and give them the world. But I will want that for me, not for them, so I’ll force myself to resist the maternal heroics. I always want to be the Red Cross in their lives, not the liberation front.
In my own life, of course, I must be both, I must manage both my own rescue and my own restoration. Once I have marched into the burning cities of my recent history and freed them from the dictators, I will still have to restore the architecture, the masterpieces and artifacts. That is just fine …I’m ready to do it and I know how to do it. My own wise, selfless parents allowed me to grow up, granted me my failure and unrequited love and disappointment, so I know how to do it.
My children’s babyhood is ending, the years of their helplessness and blind trust and love-bordering-on-worship are ending …but the world isn’t ending.