There’s a twelve-year span and two more kids between our oldest child and our youngest, the original and last babies. When they are tiny, the babies, they are wonder and mystery and vexingly sleepless at times you want them to sleep. As parents, especially the first time round, you imbue so much upon these tiny creatures. Who is this? Who will this become?
At the same time, there’s all the baby minutiae, the sleeplessness and the poopfulness and the questions about whether the smile is gas and the tears are teething. Recall how many times when you care for babies you ask yourself how it’s possible that an intelligent person such as yourself could give away so much brainpower to excrement. You, or speaking for myself, I shook my head many times over at the absurdity of the enterprise, equal parts grateful and bemused and horrified and exhausted. Maybe, if I’m honest and let myself remember how grinding the sleep deprivation was, exhaustion edged out the rest.
My eldest recently turned eighteen. I remember during my own adolescence, maybe a bit earlier than eighteen, that I spent a lot of time on some swings near my dad’s house wondering whatever happened to childhood. I felt a little sad about growing up, I recall, even though I cannot say I was so very happy as a child. This fall, between one turning eighteen and another starting kindergarten and some question about the future of a neighborhood playground that has swings, I’ve thought of those swings a lot. I’ve remembered that sensation of time passing and the awe and the melancholy and the fear that accompany it. Three pregnancies later, swings make me nauseous. Yet, I’m on the swings in my mind: wondering how one child’s childhood evaporated and another is fifteen, another eleven and the baby girl, the last baby, is five-and-a-half and in kindergarten.
During her infancy, I was pulled in two directions. I thought I knew what there was to know about babies, as in how to smush her into a ball for comfort and improved digestion and how critical it was to set her on her tummy. At the same time, I thought a lot about all that I couldn’t know. I couldn’t know how early her teeth would come in or whether there was a genetic disposition toward or away from happiness.
Did she cry more than the others? Was she fussier? Did she nap less? Did she laugh more? Maybe, I’m not sure. Babies fuss. Some babies sleep more. Some sleep less. What I didn’t realize as I worried and wondered about stuff I wouldn’t know—her father’s family medical history, for one thing—I neglected what I already knew: for all the things we think biology can tell us, there’s still so much we can’t know. Biology is a piece of a larger puzzle. It’s not as simple as nature versus nurture or nurture over nature or any one element against another. And it’s not as if the happiest kid becomes the happiest adult or the one who sleeps most feels the most rested. It’s all just so much more complicated, and so-not-straightforward.
I had an inkling of that as the bigger problems began, as in small children small problems big ones big ones—mostly the ones that awareness of the larger world bring. One of the first glimmers of this happened while we waited for this last baby to be born. My eldest boy was in sixth grade at the time and wanted, rather desperately for a few weeks, for the baby’s pregnant birth mother Caroline to move to the apartment on our third floor to raise the baby because he couldn’t fathom how she’d let the baby go and how we could let that happen to her.
“It’s so complicated,” I remember saying over and over, as I tried to convince him that as heartbreaking as this seemed and felt and was, it was also okay. Caroline would be okay and the baby would be okay and we’d all be family in a way that helped it become okay. Had I known I’d have such a sensitive and stellar person emerge? I was so blown away by his ability to feel for everyone at that moment. I didn’t feel responsible for his smarts or his compassion. I just felt awed. And I felt humbled. That sensation, the awed and humbled one, it’s endured, about all four of them.
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