A million ways to be a good mother

“The most important thing she’d learned over the years was that there was no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” – Jill Churchill

I also like this comment by Carl Honore, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting:

“To me, Slow parenting is about bringing balance into the home. Children need to strive and struggle and stretch themselves, but that does not mean childhood should be a race. Slow parents give their children plenty of time and space to explore the world on their own terms. They keep the family schedule under control so that everyone has enough downtime to rest, reflect and just hang out together. They accept that bending over backwards to give children the best of everything may not always be the best policy. Slow parenting means allowing our children to work out who they are rather than what we want them to be.”

I’d never refer to myself as balanced or slow-moving (more like wildly unbalanced and frenetically moving – including an injury this week from walking down the hall at the office. yes, I am that coordinated) but this description of parenting philosophy really feels right to me. Perhaps I try so hard at this with my children in an attempt to make up for what I know is a keen personal void. Who knows. I liked the quote.

Trying my best here, in the still-freezing-cold early spring.

Deep joy and unsettling ambivalence

I adore this post about the experience of motherhood. It evokes the twin emotions I feel on a daily basis: deep joy and unsettling ambivalence.

So, to write my own list of five things I love about being a mother:

1. The absolute hilarity of the things that come out of their mouths. Whit and his majesty pants, Grace and her mouth-of-marbles attempts at using really big words (today was “inevitable”).

2. The rediscovery of string cheese, chicken nuggets, ritz crackers, macaroni and cheese, and those divine fruit gummy things that are pretending they aren’t candy. Also, that every restaurant meal comes with french fries.

3. The occasional demonstration of genuine affection between them. When I bust them playing nicely together or holding hands crossing the street.

4. The way sleeping children are just so sound asleep. And the delicious, Johnsons-baby-shampoo smell of their heads in sleep. And the pajamas. I love pajamas, especially from The Gap.

5. Children’s music. I unabashedly listen to Raffi, Steve Songs, and other children’s CDs even when driving alone.

The passage

Many of you know that birth is an important topic to me personally. Let me say that again: to me personally. I do not consider myself an evangelist and hope to never come across as one. It has struck me more than once that it’s interesting that the universe made the process of becoming a mother (conception, pregnancy, birth) so easy for someone who struggles so mightily with being a mother.

Anyway, I read this passage today on babble.com and it captures a lot of what I feel about birth – an open mind rather than a closed one, in fact, and a powerful awareness of my own luck in having it go the way it did for me. It is an important passage, certainly, but in the grand scheme of identity and motherhood, a very small one. And, arguably, you make the passage one way or another. It is the arrival on the other side that is the key, no?

The lesson, ultimately, is that we are not in control; this is a conversation I’ve had many times over with friends waiting at 41 weeks for their first child to commence his or her arrival. We are simply not in charge of these little people: not then, and not ever. I may have handled relatively easily the intense hours of becoming a mother that the writer describes, but I grapple on a regular basis with the months, years, and decades of mothering. There is no ambiguity in my mind about which struggle is more important, more meaningful, and more difficult.

Was it the birth of my dreams? Hardly. Do I wish it could have been different? Sure. But compared with the result — my daughter, Liana, little sister to my sons Eitan and Daniel — I really don’t care. If I’ve learned anything in ten years of motherhood, it’s that the way our children are brought into the world means very little for how they live in the world. Nor do the intense hours in which we become mothers shape the months, years and decades of our actually being mothers. And if the experience of childbirth is in fact a crucial process, then let it be the process of teaching us that our children will emerge in ways varied and complicated, not necessarily in times or manners of our choosing, neither made in our image nor as proof of our prowess. Let birth remind us that, with children, so little goes according to even the most well-drawn plan.
– Tova Mirvis

And again, with feeling: the ER

I guess I still have some smugness that needs to be beat out of me. For all of that talk about cavalierly choosing to accept risk, not an hour after I wrote that blog post, Whit went to the ER in an ambulance.

Grace and I had picked out two tiny chocolate Easter eggs at Bread & Circus this morning. The eggs were wrapped in foil and in a basket right by the checkout. I assumed they were solid chocolate. There was no ingredient information or label. After giving them the eggs after lunch today, I skipped off to the gym.

I was there only 30 minutes. Walking out I checked my phone and saw texts from Anastasia: gone to the ER. Whit is having nut reaction. I drove as fast as I could (why are there so many sloooowwww drivers on the streets? i made zero friends with my horn today) and walked in about 5 minutes after they had arrived. Whit was quiet, clearly scared, and hoarse. He barely spoke. I handled insurance paperwork and watched him with concern. It became clear that he was actually getting worse. Anastasia explained that she had done the epi pen at home but that he had moved – he had a huge gash on his leg and probably not enough epinephrine in his system.

After about 30 minutes of watching a rash spread across his face and chest and listening to his increasing wheezing, a team of doctors and nurses descended. This happened fast. They asked me to hold his face while other adults held him down, administered another epipen, four different kinds of oral medications, put a nebulizer mask on his face, covered him with little sticky heart monitors, and inserted an IV. My poor boy. He visibly cowered in fear when he saw the epipen coming and then, after it was done, with tears streaming down his face, choked out:

“Please, only one epipen? Please?”

I was crying, struck by both his pain and his manners.

I was too busy holding him down and cupping his tear-wet cheeks to take pictures when he was really hooked up to everything. It was scary. His eyes were wild above the nebulizer mask, looking for me, full of questions and fear.

Epinephrine is some amazing stuff. Shortly, his rash started to clear and his breathing began to calm a bit. Matt took Grace home, and Anastasia and I settled in for what we had been told would be a lengthy waiting period. The IV dripped silently into him, and he kept having to pee in a bottle as it dripped out of him. I told Anastasia about how stupid and guilty I felt for having given him a chocolate without knowing precisely what was in it. I was so angry at myself for that – and also for not being there when this happened. As she and I talked, Whit was lying on the bed in between us, staring at the ceiling, almost falling asleep. Suddenly he spoke:

“Mummy, it’s okay.”

“Oh, but Whit, I am so sorry – I was so stupid and I feel so terrible for doing this to you. It was such a mistake. I am sorry.” I cried back to him.

“No, Mummy, it’s okay. It was an ackident.”

I started bawling then. I hadn’t realized he was even listening, but not only had he heard me, but he wanted to make me feel better. It was a humbling moment: when your four year old is parenting you, it’s time to grow up.

I could tell he didn’t feel great still because he was so docile. He just sat, listened, watched, eyes occasionally fluttering shut. After a while Anastasia went home and I sat next to him, rubbing his white back, feeling the regular bumps of his spine, looking at the little jutting shoulder bones that I always think of as his wings. Oh, my baby boy. My fragile, fragile boy.

When they finally took off all of the monitors and removed the IV, I picked Whit up in my arms and almost twirled him around, so grateful was I to be able to do so. It was so nice to have the wires gone. Again with the manners: I said,

“Whit, please say thank you to Jane for taking such good care of you” (Jane the nurse who had wielded several big needles and scary smoke-emitting masks)

“Jane, thank you for taking such good care of me,” he said without hesitation. Jane gave me a huge grin and told him he was a great pediatric patient.

“What’s a ped-atkrick patient?” he asked.

“Pediatric means child. Which word do you like better?” Jane asked him.

“Oh, ped-akrick.” he smiled.

I stayed home tonight from C’s birthday celebration to check on him every 30 minutes, and to assuage Grace who has already come out of her room crying once that she is having nightmares about what happened today. She was genuinely afraid of what happened. Anastasia told me that within 3 minutes of her calling 911 there were nine male EMTs in our living room. When I got home there was a towel striped with blood thrown in one corner and Whit’s jeans cast across the couch. I shudder to think about what Grace saw.

I guess this was a gentle reminder from the universe that the risk really is real, really is close, and that it doesn’t behoove me to be so careless about it.

Message heard.


I love Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode column yesterday. Love it. I had tears running down my face at work reading it. It touched many soft spots for me, including my deep awareness of the fragility of it all, my inability to really enjoy life in the moment, and the way that parenting humbles you, making you aware of how smug you were to assume you could control most things about these little people.

If I were to write my list today, I think the three sections would mirror the list of soft spots again. There is something so simultaneously fragile and sturdy about these little children’s bodies. When I was pregnant with Grace, I remember vividly thinking: ok, just have to get to 12 weeks without miscarrying … then, please God let me have an ok AFP result … then, let there be 10 fingers and 10 toes at the ultrasound … then the delivery … then you realize, like a lightning bolt: It never ends, this risk.

At any moment Grace and Whit could meet with danger, either through an accident or through development of illness. When thinking about this post last night, I thought initially: I have chosen not to live in fear of these risks. And then I thought about it, mentally hitting the delete key until the sentence was struck out. I don’t know that for me it’s a choice; it feels more like instinct, something gleaned by osmosis from my own confident, comfortable, capable mother. Thank you, Mum.

In a weird confluence of thoughts about risk, the Natasha Richardson story yesterday really got to me, activating that same sense of: Wow, there is danger everywhere, and yet we cannot really anticipate or prepare for it. How devastating that story is to me, for some reason – the difficulty of reconciling a small tumble on a bunny slope, from which she walked away, with the news that she is likely brain dead … how does that happen?

There is nothing I can say on the topic of how fast it goes that is more succinct and perfect than that old adage about parenting: The days are long but the years are short.

And then. Oh, how children cause the mighty and smug to fall! I remember being incredibly proud of myself when Grace, at her three-year old checkup, told Dr. Rick that broccoli was her favorite food (totally unprompted by me, who actually loathes broccoli). My good sleeper, my good eater, my generally sunny and cooperative child. Sure, she had terrible colic and screamed for the first three months of her life. But I barely remember those months and as I’ve averred before, it may well have been me who had the colic.

And then Whit. I think every parent has a particular dimension on which this come-to-Jesus occurs. For me, it is food. The child eats only hamburger, chicken (in nugget form), and noodles. He won’t even eat such childhood staples as applesauce and raisins. No. I hide a pea under a forkful of chicken nugget and he chews, thinks, and then reaches into his mouth to extract the pea. The child’s sense of taste is like a pregnant lady’s sense of smell.

Anyway, the point is: we think we know it all, and then we learn we know nothing. I am fairly sure I know less about this whole journey than I did 6.5 years ago – I know I am certain of much less. You accumulate stories and shed stereotypes. You accept exceptions and nuances and drop assumptions. This is growth, people, isn’t it? Doesn’t this sound like – shocker! – maturity? Adulthood? Wow. Who knew.