Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bringing Home Baby: When Time Means Nothing

There's nothing quite like having a baby to make you lose all track and all concept of time. I took my watch off in the delivery room, as per the nurse's orders, and haven't put it back on since. In fact it's still tucked in my purse, right alongside other things I haven't touched since the big arrival, like my favorite lipstick and one of the many rolls of Tums that got me through a whole lot of heartburn.

Partly the watch has stayed put because I fear it will scratch the baby in all the picking up, putting down, changing, rocking, bouncing, and cuddling my watch-wearing arm is once again engaged in. And partly it's because time, as measured by my watch, just doesn't seem to accurately reflect the current state our life.

By the clock and the calendar, our baby boy is two weeks old today. Two weeks? How can it be that I have soy milk in my refrigerator that has been with us longer than this sweet little creature? Maybe it's the 13 nights of sleep deprivation, but I already have trouble remembering a time he wasn't part of our family. His movements, those jerky arms and legs, the way he rests his left arm against his head... it all just seems so familiar. Granted, he and I did spend 40 weeks together in rather close confines, so technically this I guess this is week 42 of our lives together. But even that doesn't seem like long enough. No, there is definitely something about having a child that reaches beyond the weeks, months and years. Something that makes you say with absolute certainty, "I have always known you."

This is our third child and my husband and I are much more relaxed in our role as parents. The "baby" side of the equation, while still a physical and emotional ordeal, is infinitely easier than in the past. I no longer need my watch to count every minute baby's been nursing or to mark the exact time of the last poopy diaper. What I do need is a third arm to work a puzzle with a 4-year-old and a 4th arm to help a 2-year-old dress her doll while nursing said baby from the comfort of the playroom floor. And as long as I'm dreaming, how about a 5th arm to make dinner, a 6th to get that unidentifiable sticky gunk off the kitchen floor, a 7th to tackle various forms of DNA in the laundry basket and an 8th to type should a coherent thought actually enter my sleep deprived brain? Apparently I want to be the Octomom.

The weight of it all began to set in shortly after the euphoria of delivery (and that lovely epidural) wore off. I sat stoic in my hospital bed, listening to the doctor explain that for the next several weeks I should really just devote myself to caring for the baby and leave everything else to "everyone else." I double checked the painkiller prescription she scribbled out to see if by chance it included housekeeping and babysitting services. Seeing none, I tearfully turned my attention to the discharge instructions she handed me before saying goodbye. Surely they contained some words of wisdom to help navigate what would lie ahead?

"Resume your daily activities at home when you feel ready. Let comfort guide you." Really?? Comfort??? If that's going to be my "guide," we're in big trouble. We'll just skip that one.

"Avoid heavy lifting (anything weighing more than your baby) until you feel up to it." Once again, this could prove problematic, and not just due to the combined weight of roughly 56 pounds of children who have patiently (and not so patiently) waited several months for a bona fide Mommy cuddle. The burden of physically lifting the three of them is still far lighter than the weight of lifting of their little spirits, of carrying their hurt and shouldering their hearts. My arms, already weak from several months of gym neglect, nearly fell off at the thought.

"Nap when possible. Sleep when the baby sleeps." I'm not even going to go there.

"Keep baby away from second-hand smoke." Well finally, there's one I can do. Second-hand smoke, consider this fair warning: I am your arch enemy. Baby, since I seem to be incapable of doing much else, I will devote myself to shielding you from second-hand smoke. Now if only I could do the same for off-handed comments that leave a sting, split-second reactions that go wrong, and smoking hot tempers.

Feeling more terrified than ever, my husband wheeled me out of the hospital and into the bright sunshine of the outside world. Hands shaking, heart quaking, and head throbbing, we tucked the papers away and loaded this precious miracle into our car. And then, we did the only thing we could: we went home.

Back to our same house, but a whole new home.

The place where we'll have to make our own rules to get by.

The place where time now means nothing.

We'll just have to take it one long, short, mixed-up, confusing, messy, exhausting, but wonderful day at a time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"Look at me!"

"Look at us, Mama!"
The first time it was cute. The fourth, fifth, and maybe even 18th time: still cute. But when your child yells out "Look at me, Mama!" for the 847th time- that morning alone- it becomes remarkably easy to overlook the cute factor and lose your temper. Or your mind. Or both.

It happens a lot when I'm cooking dinner. "Look at me, Mama!" he calls out excitedly. So I leave the pot on the stove, pop my head into the playroom and oblige him with the requested look. Usually he wants to show off a big accomplishment in Almost 4-year-old Land, like how high he can jump, or a particularly impressive bit of chalkboard art, or (unfortunately) something that came out of his nose. Or some other exit hole.

It happens when we're outside. "Look at me, Mama!" he yells with every slide down the slide and each bubble blown.

And it happens when we're driving in the car. "Look at me, Mama!" I hear from the backseat, despite numerous explanations of how Mama really needs to keep her eyes on the road. (Forget texting- I say parenting while driving is the ultimate distraction.)

Sometimes the verbiage differs; there's "Watch this, Mama!" and "Mom!!! COME SEEEEEE!!!!" Even his not quite 2-year-old sister gets in on the action, with her own version of the call to action. "Yook-ah-meee, Mama!" she yells, usually when she's just standing there sucking her thumb in her particularly adorable way. The words may differ slightly, but the underlying message is always the same: do you see me? Aren't you proud of me?

And yes, I absolutely am. I am so proud of the beautiful little spirits they possess, the amazing people they continue to grow into every day. I am humbled and amazed to think that I had any part in any of it. But honestly, there are times when I just can not muster up the excitement at the sight of a little boy who has just figured out how to stick three fingers into one ear.

"AND?????" I sometimes want to yell out of frustration over the fact that we did not buy a house with an open floor plan and so the journey from kitchen to playroom now means we will be eating The Black Substance Formerly Known As Marinara on our pasta.

Usually I bite my tongue and try to be pleasant and encouraging as I catch sight of his eager, expectant little face. "Nice job!" I tell him. "Now see if you can get your elbow in there while Mama finishes making dinner."

It's just part of being a good parent, I tell myself through clenched teeth. But sometimes I worry, am I creating little monsters? Applause junkies? Kids who desperately need approval to validate their very existence? Kids who are never told the cold, hard, truth about their performance until one day they show up on the audition episode of American Idol singing "Shebang, Shebang!" completely unable to grasp why the judges won't put them through to the next round?

I remember a time shortly after our first child was born when my husband and I spent most of our time shouting "Look at him!" to each other. As a new parent, everything, and I do mean everything your first child does, tends to amaze.

"Look at him! He sneezed!!!" (Translation- "He's a genius!")

"Look at him! He put a crayon in his mouth!" ("What a brilliant artist!")

"Look at him! He's sticking his fingers in his...!" (OK, that's just gross. But we still felt the need to ooh and ahh over it.)

And just "Look at me" now. Most days by the umpteenth shout-out I find myself wondering when the "Look at me, Mama!" phase will end.

And then one day I realized, it really never does.

I like to think of myself as pretty independent. My parents could not have been further from the "helicopter" model that hovers over many schools today. They had demanding careers and trusted that life would go on if they were not in attendance at every orchestra concert, school play and science fair. And they were right. Add to that a different cultural model of parenting that does not include heaping praise upon a child and "Look at me!" was not even an option.

But deep down, I know I've always yearned for, and not often known if I had, my parents' approval. Before getting married I lived on my own for many, many years, in many, many different parts of the country and the world. I'd like to think they watched with a mixture of fear and slight amusement as I continent and career-hopped across the globe. But most of the time I felt like the black sheep of the family. No focus, no direction. I was proud of myself for being willing to take risks, to push myself far beyond any physical or mental comfort zone, but always worried I was letting them down. It wasn't anything we ever talked about (see above re: cultural differences) but I always felt my lifestyle didn't scream "Look at me!" as much as "Don't look now!" If only I could have been a doctor or a nurse or a teacher or an engineer, or anything on the Parental Preferred List of Careers. Maybe then I could have shouted "Look at me!" and known for certain they were beaming with pride.

I convinced myself over the years that I didn't need anyone to look at me. I was confident in myself and told myself that was all that mattered. Put on a thick skin that has served me well in my chosen career (which doesn't even come close to the Preferred List, or even the Understood List). Look at me if you want, I told myself, but if not, I'm OK.

Eventually, I did settle down (with an engineer, no less) and had two...perhaps by the time you read this...three kids. And I've found that there's nothing quite like becoming a parent that makes you want to shout "Look at me!" to your own parents.

There are the lessons you learned from your parents that you consciously or unconsciously pass along to your own children. There are the things you choose to do differently. And then there are the things you swore you'd never do when you became a parent that you now realize just have to be done. It's hard not to want to show off this newfound wealth of information and understanding in the form of your little ones.

My own parents still lead busy lives and we don't see them nearly as often as we, or our children, would like. But when we do, and when I see my dad with his grandchildren, I see a look in his eyes that tells me all I need to know. Maybe I've finally become confident enough in myself to not need to hear it, or maybe I just know He sees what I see, and through those kids, I finally have no doubt, he sees me.

So the next time I hear my son yell out "Look at me, Mama!" I will do my best to respond appropriately. No, I can't drop everything and run to him every time he puts crayon to paper. And no, my little girl doesn't need a round of applause to know she's done well sticking the wooden cat in the designated puzzle slot. No one wants a child with skin that thin.

But there's got to be a balance, because I've been looking at myself a lot more lately and realizing that at some point, a thick skin becomes a barrier to keep others away. And that wanting to be seen doesn't necessarily make you weak.

As it turns out, sometimes it really does feel good to know that big brother, or Mama, or someone you love is watching.

Sometimes it just feels good to be seen.