almost one: the mystery of a baby year

He sits beside me on the carpet, staring at a bright blue book about fish, patting its pages and gnawing its cardboard spine. Late afternoon sun slants through the nursery window, catching wispy curls of his hair, strawberry blond or golden brown as the light shifts.

Every time he catches my eyes watching him, his face erupts into silent grin. I am lying on my side and he leans over to bat his pudgy arms against the curve of my stomach, soft and forgiving after three babies.

Twelve months ago he was still curled inside me, kicking and squirming. Now he has small ham hocks for thighs, plump cheeks he stuffs with fistfuls of peas, whirling arms that reach out with clumsy waves at any smiling face he sees.

He is on the cusp of turning one.

image

A baby year is a blur. In the beginning, night is day and day is night. Hours are days and days are hours. Life is flipped inside out like hundreds of tiny socks piled on the bed, laundry reproducing at stunning rates: burp cloths, spit-up soaked onesies, thousands of diapers tumbled to dry. Only the basics consume us: eating, sleeping, the occasional bath. The world spins by outside while we burrow into our cocoon: mother, baby, closest kin who love them. All the rest falls away and it does not matter.

The shifts happen softly and are undone as quickly as they come. The baby starts to sleep longer, then the pattern unravels. The personality emerges, then teething disrupts everything. The new normal is settled, then falls apart. Undaunted, the baby grows.

We parents sense – and rightly so – that the child we hold today is already transforming into a new creature by tomorrow. So we fumble to capture what is fleeting in photo or word, even knowing any secondary creation we attempt will fall short.

Because what we are trying to capture is us, too – in mid-transformation. We somehow sense that we are becoming, again, as this strange small person is becoming, anew. We want to remember exactly how we feel – which is exactly how this baby feels, smells, looks, and sounds, right now, today, in our arms – because it is momentary and momentous, all at once.

This is the essence of the baby year, the longest shortest time. It whizzes by us as each day drags. It lulls us into thinking we have regained rhythm and found our footing, and then it lunges forward into worlds unknown. It shifts like a kaleidoscope. We think we control the turning because we hold it in our hands, but the flash of color comes unbidden from the moving parts inside, the beauty we can never recreate.

I have been a mother for nearly six years. This is such a small sliver of my life. But conceiving and carrying and caring for these children has made me and unmade me and remade me in so many unexpected ways that numbers fail to capture.

On the floor beside me sits my third son, two weeks from turning one. Numbers fail to capture him, too. In the short span of twelve months he has gone from the dark womb to the bright day, from the muffled kicks to the determined crawl, from the first cry to the almost-word. Already I see glimmers of his grown self in his deep eyes, his ready joy, his centered quiet. He will not stop changing, even as he becomes himself.

A baby year transforms. It brings infant and parents around the sun just one time, yet we are transfigured for having seen all sides of this blinding bright, able and aware in ways we could not imagine a year before.

Maybe this is the truth my hopeful/jaded self wants to carry with me, into a world so tired from suffering and violence and evil and our own baffling self-destruction. That one year can change us. That we remain unpredictable. That today is important even as it passes.

My son will not remember a single day from his first year. I will remember it only in shadows and glimpses, a strange dream of deep naps on summer afternoons, tired hours on autumn mornings, moon shadows glowing through winter’s nights, spring green buds clasped in tiny fingers.

Still I pause in the blur, slowing to remember and recenter, steadying myself to witness a moment in the mystery of lives unfolding. One long sun-turned season of becoming again.

His and mine.

what we hold tight & what we let go

I finally tossed the stack of papers into the recycling bin, the post-op instructions we brought home after surgery. That laundry list of every possible complication and horrific side effect, the worries you watch for like a hawk when you first come home from the hospital, clutching the doctor’s instructions as if they were a lifesaver.

I felt a little sheepish when I realized the papers had been sitting on the bathroom counter for so long, spying at me each time I helped a child brush his teeth or wash his hands. Why did I think I needed to keep them around for weeks, even after surgery went fine and healing went as hoped and that healthy boy now runs around laughing and shrieking, never skipping a beat?

But this is what you do when you’re struggling to keep your head above water.

You hold on.

 . . .

After each birth it took me weeks to throw away the official discharge papers from the hospital. What if something awful happened to me or the baby? What if we didn’t know what to do?

When nursing got hard after each newborn, I desperately clung to the lactation consultant’s suggestion sheet until it fell apart in my hands. What if what she said held the answer? What if I could just find the secret trick to make everything magically ok?

When we came home from well-check visits during each baby’s first year, I dutifully kept every list of developmental milestones, as if I could simply check off what I wanted like a shopping list. What if they didn’t grow on track? What if I didn’t catch the warning signs in time? What if I failed the ones entrusted to me?

Secretly I convinced myself as a new mom that the secret to surviving – healing, adjusting, learning how to live anew after each transition – lay hidden within some expert’s black and white words on the page.

But it didn’t. The secret lay within my growing ability to trust.

And to learn what to let go.

image

I remember the day I gave away my stack of parenting manuals, the ones I poured through as a first-time parent. Sleep, feeding, development, illness, milestones – I read every chapter religiously. Those books became Bible to me in the wee dark hours with a screaming newborn or a sleepless baby or a feverish toddler.

But then one day, when baby #2 was nearing two, I realized I never read them anymore.

Sure, I sought Dr. Google’s advice on the regular like any modern parent. And I had long ago memorized our pediatrician’s phone number. But I had started to trust my intuition more, too.

And I learned the hard way, as every parent learns, that children never match the ideal descriptions in any book. We are all more mysterious and unpredictable (see also: human!) than any expert could predict with perfect precision.

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

image

Guideposts are helpful along the way. We would be lost and frantic without them when we start down an unfamiliar path.

But then we have to set down the map, leave behind the guidebook, get our own bearings, and make our way into the wilder and wondrous world of getting to know reality as it looks us in the face.

Which, for parenting, means learning to read and respond to another human being’s needs, wants, fears, faults, temperament and challenges. Another human being who is as messy and stubborn and delightful and frustrating as we are, too.

Today the only books and guides I keep on the subject of parenting (see the photo above) are wise ones that offer more questions than answers. These are the companions I want on this journey.

Because what I am learning now is this. At each stage of life, a key question will arise: what do I hold tight and what do I let go? 

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

Right now I know there are plenty of things I cling to that I should let go. (A few small examples: my need to exert control over young children’s temper tantrums, my delirious desire to sleep 8 straight hours, my frustration with a home that will never stay clean for more than 4.5 minutes.)

I want answers to these questions, solutions for these puzzles, experts for my uncertainty. I am still holding tight to what would serve me better to let go.

In time I will grow some more and let these slip through an open hand.

I hope.

 . . .

There are deeper lessons here. About what faith means. What trust invites. What we let ourselves learn as we grow in courage to leave the experts behind.

This is another kind of knowing, a way in the darkness, a calling within the stillness of soul where God dwells.

Because nestled deep in the heart center, when all is stripped away and we are left alone with our God, there is nothing to let go but fear. Nothing to cling to but love.

And love, it appears, has been the answer all along.

how to speak their language

He loves math. I do not. We have to learn how to love each other.

When I say he loves math, I do not mean it as mere preference or interest or opinion. I mean it as the air he breathes, swallowing numbers in hungry gulps, pushing answers back into the swirling world of equations around him.

I mean it as the water in which he swims, life-giving and all-surrounding and impossible to isolate from the basic fact of his existence.

He watches the numbers at the gas pump like a hawk, tallying up how much more we spent last week. He clutches the grocery receipt like a treasure map, rushing in the back door to his toy cash register to add up the sum again. He does division as a kindergartener that I worked on as a fifth-grader.

This stumps me sometimes.

photo (5)

A few weeks ago when he came out of surgery, barely able to flutter open his eyes, still groggy from anesthesia, he started multiplying the numbers on the monitor screen next to his bed: if you take the oxygen rate times the heart rate, you get 9800. 

The nurse turned, wide-eyed. He’s a math guy! An engineer, maybe? A scientist?

I do not know. He is mystery.

. . .

I never intended to have children to pass on any particular part of myself or my spouse. Heredity is too strange and humility too important for anything else to have factored in.

Yet I still puzzle over how drastically different these children can be. Yes, this one has his nose, that one has my cheeks. But their minds are wildly and blessedly their own.

I cannot even comprehend how differently they see the world, even though each is his own unique product of the equation of same mother plus same father.

Thankfully we are more than the sum of our parts or the product of our parents. How pale and predictable the world would be if our temperaments or talents could be so easily summed up.

But a child who sees the world in numbers? Words fail me.

I know how to snuggle up with our boy who loves books. He and I can pull a pile of tattered paperbacks onto the couch and lose ourselves in a sunny afternoon. I breathe in the warm scent of his hair, dark like mine, and remember hours of my own book-strewn childhood stretched out on the library floor.

I trace the words on the page with my finger like my father did for me. I watch my son’s brain turn and click as he starts to understand how letters make words and words make sentences and sentences make stories. He loves this. I do, too.

image

But I cannot choose to connect only with what is easy and immediate. What looks like me or my experience. I also have to meet my children in strange lands and unfamiliar territories.

I must let each of them lead me.

And right now one wants to teach me how numbers are as fascinating as words, how equations are as beautiful as paintings. I make jokes about how I would be lost without my iPhone calculator, but this is unhelpful in the long work of learning to love deeply and differently because of having these children in my life.

So what if one of my sons surpasses me in knowledge long before I feel ready to let him take the lead? So what if another one’s personality seems so different from mine or his father’s that it baffles us at times?

Stepping back and learning from each of them is my daily challenge. And a grateful gift. They remind me that faithfulness, not comparison, is the heart of this calling.

. . .

Years ago I heard the physicist and author Brian Greene talk about how his father encouraged him as a child. Even though they spoke different languages.

He was a composer, musician, singer, vaudevillian. So music was his language. From a young age, I got very excited not about science, but about mathematics. Because my dad taught me early on the basics operations and I became captivated by the idea that by using these little operations, you could do things that nobody had ever done before. My dad would set me 30 digit numbers by 30 digit numbers and have me multiply them, big sheets of construction paper. No one had ever multiplied those numbers before.

His dad didn’t love math, but he loved music. And he loved his son. So he realized that he had to learn to translate and nurture a gift he didn’t himself possess. Or even understand.

This is why I have to learn how to love math (at least a little).

Because each child will need something different from me. Each child will invite me to grow in new ways. Each child will grow into someone beyond my imagining.

And as their parent, I want to meet each of them where they are.

image

there will be so many years

There will be so many years, she tells me, of nights so quiet you don’t know what to do with yourself.

I’m perched on my knees, rolling my green yoga mat into a tight spiral, facing the brick wall of the studio so she can’t see my smile when she wishes the class “a peaceful evening.”

You can’t believe it now, I know, she laughs.

Mine are 23 and 25. And the house is quiet. So quiet. 

I tell her I believe her.

. . .

There will be so many years, she tells me, of whole days where you can do whatever you want.

I’m washing dishes in the sink, staring out the water-splattered kitchen window while she finishes her cup of coffee before the boys drag her into another board game because “Grandma, you promised!”

Can you imagine it now, she smiles. Whole days to do whatever you want?

I can’t imagine. I tell her I believe her.

image

There will be so many years.

Of calm Sundays at church. Lazy Saturday mornings spent reading the whole newspaper. Spur-of-the-moment Friday nights when we decide to see that show or try that restaurant or watch that movie.

When we do nothing more to prepare but pull on coats and flick off lights as we leave. No planning, no pumping, no prepping the babysitter on everyone’s bedtime routine. We will forget all these details.

We will watch films first-run, take weekend getaways, catch art exhibitions before they close, go to that jazz club whenever the mood strikes us.

We will do laundry once a week instead of twice a day. We will grocery shop with one basket instead of two carts. We will listen to whatever we want in the car. Or we will simply drive and listen to nothing at all.

There will be so many years.

When little boy laughter does not bubble up from downstairs. When bright baby smiles do not greet us from the crib to wake the morning. When they don’t sing silly songs or dance in the kitchen or build basement rocket ships or cuddle onto the couch to read stacks of books.

For most of the years I will know my children, we will all be adults (God willing).

We will still laugh and joke and enjoy each other’s company. But we will also be serious. We will talk about politics and money. We will disagree. They will have their own addresses. We will make plans to meet for lunch. They will insist on picking up the check.

And all I have to do?

Let these years be these years. Let those years be those years.

Refuse to escape the privilege of another present moment with them by reaching ahead for what is not yet. Or longing behind for what was.

All I have to do is be present. To the gift of right now.

. . .

There will be so many years, I will tell her, when you don’t get to carry a baby all day. Believe me, I don’t mind.

She will stand near my elbow, holding another blanket and burp cloth ready, trying not to hover but still hovering because that’s all you can do when your baby is still shockingly brand new.

Can you believe it now, I will ask her as I breathe in that fuzzy warmth again, that there will be days when you don’t hold anyone?

Her eyes will be glassy from one of those painful nights of naps. All she will see are the heaps of laundry shoved in corners before I came over, the mess of bottles waiting to be sanitized once I leave, the dishes in the sink she should have scrubbed, the hair she didn’t wash, the clothes she didn’t change.

She won’t be able to imagine. But she might try to believe.

There will be so many years.

the last day of one

It’s time to switch him to 1%.

The doctor’s words echo in my ear as I stand in the cold rush of the open fridge door, shaking the half-empty carton of whole milk. It is the last one we will buy.

. . .

We’re down to six diapers in each load, twice a week. Barely worth washing, but we remind ourselves we can’t complain about a child who trains himself before two.

Stacks of diapers now sit unused on the top shelf of his closet, crammed next to tubs of tiny onesies and plastic bottles.

Every time I pull open the door to stash another neglected toy or outgrown outfit, I try not to wonder when – if – we’ll pull them out again.

What matters is this one is growing.

. . .

May I sit on your lap, please? He toddles over with a grin and I cannot resist a full sentence. So I scoop him up and he smiles while I write.

Seconds later he shoves off in search of something more exciting.

He’s always leaving.

. . .

My husband hauls the changing table down from upstairs. It sits awkward and out of place in the front hallway.

“Should we give it away?” he asks as the kids run around us, shrieking at some game they’ve invented. “We still have the other one.”

“Not now,” I shake my head. “I know it makes no sense, but will you just stick it in the basement? I can’t get rid of it yet.”

He nods.

Now it stares at me every time I slip by the furnace room, empty and alone.

. . .

Nostalgia fills thick August air as the leaves start to yellow and the school buses zip back through the neighborhood, practicing their routes.

I wonder why I am not sad at all about the prospect of preschool starting again, why all the Facebook photos of first days don’t tug at my heartstrings like they usually do. Is it because our oldest is used to school now, that he’s excited to go back, that summer camp’s thrill proved the tears at drop off are now behind us?

No, I realize quietly one afternoon. I am not sad about his back-to-school because I am already sad about his brother’s farewell to babyhood.

My heart is too full.

Of course I know part of this is the loss, the sadness that there is not another baby on the way, to take his place on the changing table, in the high chair, in the clothes that continue to shrink on his lengthening limbs.

But my tug at his turning two started much earlier, when I realized how his own babyhood was whizzing past me. I feel the flow of time’s current quicker with this second child, and I don’t know what comes next.

Maybe my sadness at his turning two – still such a wee small number! why such worry? – comes at my having to release him into this inbetweenness.

Where there is no quick hug and wave at school drop-off, but we still have to learn to say goodbye each day. Where there is no neat curriculum for how the next year will unfold, but he still needs to learn leaps and bounds before my eyes. Where we will both have to muddle through uncertainty and growth and letting go.

Maybe the only spiritual practice is learning to let go. Of our false sense of control, of our preconceived notions of how the world should work, of the fear that change will change us.

All around me is proof. He is no longer a baby.

But God, this is hard to let go.

. . .

Today is the last day of one, the slender straight line of one.

Tomorrow will bring two’s curve and sharp base, the race towards presents and cake and becoming something – someone – bigger.

Today I hold him close and let him go. Hold him close and let him go.

All I can do is keep practicing.

“That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most…The experience is natural and common. And still planets are thrown off their axes.”

Michael Gerson, Washington Post: “Saying goodbye to my child, the youngster

paying attention: take two

The second half of this new series. Following each author’s insight on How We Spend Our Time, I’ll offer another perspective on the same theme. Ginny got us thinking about paying attention. Here’s my take.

How does he already need new shoes? September 2012 122

Didn’t I just cut their hair?

When did his sweatshirt shrink so small?

They’re growing all around me, my wild young weeds. I shouldn’t be surprised. Isn’t helping them grow our goal as parents? We try to stuff them full of good food, let them run around in fresh air to breathe deep, love them up fierce so their bones stay strong.

But they grow so fast, and then the time of now is gone. In the busy present I can forget to pay attention and watch them unfurling in front of me, my own time-lapse images of seeds sprouting, seedlings shooting up out of the damp soil, green leaves popping apart to stretch up towards the sun.

When my husband flips back through a photo album or I pack away another pile of clothing, we often call to each other to come witness the change we hadn’t realized in front of us: How were they ever that tiny? Didn’t we just pull out this box of clothes?

We barely recognize the babies they were a year ago. Time flew but in the moment it felt like a breeze fluttering by.

Only when I see them with the wistful eyes of yesterday or the nostalgic eyes of tomorrow do I pay attention. Only then – when the too-small shoes or the too-long hair or the too-tight shirts grab me by the shoulders and shake me awake – do I see how much the present moment holds.

There is so much for me to pay attention to here and now. Not to worry about tomorrow’s to-dos or next year’s plans, but the fullness of all I have: the right-now cupped within my hands.

What makes my boys laugh today, what they’ll gobble up at dinner tonight, what they’ll request to read before bed – all of this will have changed before I know it. But if I see it, if I celebrate it, if I give thanks for it knowing it will pass, then I will have spent my time well.

When I practice the art of paying attention, I see their beauty: the baby-boy-ness of almost-two, the curious child of almost-four.

When I practice the prayer of paying attention, I realize this grace: the sacrament of seeing God right before me.

When I practice the love of paying attention, I celebrate this truth: the joy of imperfect enoughness as a mother.

Their fingernails need clipping (again). And the toilets need scrubbing (again). And that work project needs editing (again). But in the midst of everything that clamors for my attention, there are truths that simply ask me to pay attention.

To invest the gift of my focus on what’s important.

To spend most of my hours on what matters most.

To pay attention.

. . .

Today I’m posting at Catholic Mom about seeing poetry in the communion line. On the days I do pay attention at church (and believe me, with two antsy kids, those days are few and far between), I’m astonished to see what I discover: glimpses of myself in bored teenagers, antsy kids, frazzled parents, wizened elders:

I watch them all in the communion line, a long trail of those who belong to God, who come each week to remember and receive. For a flash of an instant, I see us as God sees us: so different, so similar, all wrapped in love and forgiveness.

Here we are, I remember. We become what we receive.

Read the rest at Catholic Mom

What do you see when you pay attention to what’s around you?

four days without fail

There are four days in every month that find me, without fail.

Day One: in which compassion runs dry and I just don’t care.

For crying out loud, is washing your face every the morning really the cruelest, most horrible, scream-worthy request a mother could ever make? Could you finally figure out how to walk and stop whining every single stinking time I’m more than two feet away from you? Why does everyone demand something from me every single moment of the day? My kids are little and needy; I am overwhelmed and tired; everything’s an annoyance, not an opportunity. I spend much of Day One envying people who live in monasteries and eyeing the calendar to calculate how many years are left till they’re all in school.

Day Two: in which the whole endeavor is a sham and it’s all pointless.

What’s the purpose of parenting another generation when we’ve already destroyed the earth, scrambled society’s morals, crushed the church’s soul? Newspaper headlines set me off; TV makes me insane; Facebook affirms that we’ve all lost our minds. I read the latest study about how children are screwed up by this or that, and I conclude the whole affair damned to hell in a handbasket. I eat a lot of chocolate on Day Two.

Day Three: in which the problem isn’t parenting; it’s me.

I conclude that other people must be, despite the screwed-up state of society and the inherent whininess of toddlers, finding utter fulfillment as they raise superstar children while making it to the gym five times a week, excelling at their careers, and happily crafting Martha Stewart-worthy homes with bright smiles on their freshly made-up faces. My problem must be my own personal failing. After barely squeaking through Day Three, I collapse on the couch to host my own pity party, trolling the interwebs, glass of wine in hand, convincing myself that if I were meant to be a mother, I would be a maternal Zen Master, a patient primary teacher of my children, a happy homemaker bursting with infinite ideas to engage my kids’ creativity and decorate our well-kept, eco-friendly, simple-living home, and a professional photographer Instagramming Pin-worthy shots of my delightful kids grinning adorably in a grassy field. Day Three often finds me fantasizing about hiring live-in help while I hide under the covers.

Day Four: in which the other three days seem impossible; it’s all grace.

I can laugh at the mess, breathe in the sweetness of their small years, glimpse God in their bright eyes. Dance in the kitchen, sing goofy songs, tickle till they squeal, love them up while they’re fresh and young. The spin slows, for a second even, and I see the goodness of the work I’m doing, the love I’m giving. The glimmer of parenting becoming prayer. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. I realize my kids are learning, from me. I see how they are slowly becoming caring, curious, hilarious people in their own right. I notice how I’m growing as a person and a parent, too. I remember I wouldn’t give up a second of this for the freedom of kidless days.

And the funny thing is, the more I notice Day Four, the more I stop to breathe and give thanks and notice beauty unfolding before my eyes, in the messy midst of heaps of laundry and towers of Legos and stacks of dishes and piles of clutter, the more regularly it rolls around, knocking Days One through Three to the corner with a saucy shake of its mama hips. Stay back, Day Four warns, wryly. I got this, girls.

And I do.

. . .

Inspired by my brilliant friend Love-It-Or-Leave-It, whose four days of ministry smacked me in the head about mothering, too. Go figure.