Anna Quindlen’s Essay on Mothering

Beautiful essay by Anna Quindlen:

“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 I like. Who, miraculously, go to the
bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by
themselves. 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 pored 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 have 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, too. 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.) 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 the 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 the 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
were.”

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