All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow,
but in disbelief.
I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three
almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in
fast. Three people who read the same books I do and
have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me
in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar
jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who
need razor blades and shower gel and
privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than
Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their
jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by
Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a
rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep
within each, barely discernible except through the
unreliable haze of the past.
Everything in all the books I once poured over is
finished for me now. Penelope Leach, T. Berry
Brazelton, Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling
rivalry and sleeping through the night and
early-childhood education - all grown obsolete. Along
with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things
Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I
suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise
like memories. What those books taught me, finally,
and what the women on the playground taught me, and
the well-meaning relations - what they taught me, was
that they couldn't really teach me very much at all.
Raising children is presented at first as a true-false
test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far
along, you realize that it is an endless essay.
No one knows anything. One child responds well to
positive reinforcement, another can be managed only
with a stern voice and a timeout. One child is toilet
trained at 3, his sibling at 2.
When my first child was born, parents were told to put
baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on
his own spit-up. By the time my
last arrived, babies were put down on their backs
because of research on sudden infant death syndrome.
To a new parent, this ever-shifting
certainty is terrifying, and then soothing.
Eventually you must learn to trust yourself.
Eventually the research will follow. I remember 15
years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton's
wonderful books on child development, in which he
describes three different sorts of infants: average,
quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet
codicil for an 18-month old who did not walk. Was
there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was
there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was
he developmentally delayed, physically
challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China.
Next year he goes to college. He can talk just
fine. He can walk, too.
Every part of raising children is humbling. Believe
me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined
in the 'Remember-When-Mom-Did' Hall
of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad
language - mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell
off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool
pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer
camp. The day when the youngest came
barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her
geography test, and I responded, 'What did you get
wrong?' (She insisted I include that here.) The time
I ordered food at the McDonald's drive-through speaker
and then drove away without picking it up from the
window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did
not allow them to watch the Simpsons
for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?
But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most
of us make while doing this. I did not live in the
moment enough. This is particularly clear now that t he
moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There
is one picture of the three of them, sitting in the
grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a
summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I
wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked
about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when
they slept that night. I wish I
had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next
thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had
treasured the doing a little more and the
getting it done a little less.
Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't,
what was me and what was simply life. When they were
very small, I suppose I thought
someday they would become who they were because of
what I'd done. Now I
suspect they simply grew into their true selves
because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back
off and let them be. The books said to be
relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I
was sometimes over t he top. And look how it all
turned out. I wound up with the three
people I like best in the world, who have done more
than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That's
what the books never told me.
I was bound and determined to learn from the experts.
It just took me a while to figure out who the experts