I remember pregnancy and childbirth with all the warmth and fondness of that “127 Hours” guy who had to chop his own arm off, only I had nine months of it, and my parka wasn’t as fluffy. But, it turns out, I think other people’s “pregnancy experience” is adorbs, so go figure. The next-door neighbors had their first child a few months ago, and I had a front-row seat from my office window, which is conveniently perched just inches from their driveway (city living, an exercise in pretending you can’t see or hear what is directly in front of you). I saw the darling mom-to-be grow from adorable bump to clearly pregnant to “I think she’s going to explode,” all from the comfort of my swivel chair.
I was avoiding work and looking out the window the day she and her husband left for the hospital. I was avoiding yet more work and still looking out the window the day they came home, baby in tow. Frankly gawking, I noticed the dad taking a picture of mother and son, together in front of their house for the first of what I realized would be a lifetime of photos. It was very Normal Rockwell, but with an iPhone. I dashed down the steps and asked them to allow me to take their family portrait, and I didn’t even drop the dad’s phone. It was all so lovely, really it was, but of course I knew, even as I smiled at them, that they were about to be hit with the Parent Stick, the poor dumb things. At that moment, the thing I knew and they didn’t was that babies are like catchy pop songs. They’re utterly charming for the first few minutes, but then suddenly it’s the hundreth chorus of “I’m Henry VIII, I am,” and their welcome wears thin.
My baby gift to the new parents was the delivery of weekly Sunday suppers for the first few weeks, which might sound like a pointless present unless you’ve had a baby, and then you know that it’s the Best Gift Ever. As I knocked at the door each Sunday, I got a freeze-frame update on how parenthood was treating these two fine young people. Which is to say, I watched them slowly lose control of themselves and the world around them, as they melted toward the floor in a state of utter exhaustion. I saw it in their eyes, and I saw it in the circles under those eyes. Babies will do that to people. Of course the lack of sleep is a big factor, but complete lack of control and heart-stopping fear can wear a person down, too. I remember reading a bagful of baby books on the long flight to China, on the journey to adopt our daughter. It was pretty much a cram course in parenting, and here’s what I figured out after all that studying up: all babies want to do is choke or suffocate, and it’s a miracle any of them survive, ever. Thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong with a newborn is the ultimate mellow harsher, no matter how cute the nursery has been decorated or how nice the onesies are. After a while, it takes a toll on even the most optimistic, high-energy sorts.
I completed my promised number of dinners, but found myself missing those quick updates on how the new family was doing. On a recent bearably warm Saturday, I ran into them in the driveway, just back from breakfast at a restaurant. As I cooed over the baby, the mom proudly told me their son was eight weeks old that very day. “We ran into someone at breakfast whose baby was only three weeks old,” she confided, “and I told him, don’t worry, it gets better.”
I snapped up to attention and saw her happy face. Clearly, she was so proud she had made it all the way to the two-month milestone, when there probably had been several moments in the past few weeks she wasn’t sure she would live until morning. Standing there in the crisp winter air, I had a crazy old lady moment of flashing forward through this kid’s life … toddlerhood tantrums and school-age hijinks and teen-agery in all its awfulness. She was feeling so proud she had climbed up this tiny little hill, and she had all of Mt. Parenthood yet to scale.
Contradicting the commonly held belief that I operate without any verbal filters, I did not say, “Right, the first eight weeks, those are the hard ones. The next 18 years should be a piece of cake.” Instead, I remembered all the times when I had done the very same thing, and I recalled challenging times with my kids that, once gotten through, had given me that complacent, “Well, my work here is done” feeling. From sleeping through the night, to curing an incorrigible biting habit, to navigating the mean girls at school, to finally finishing the thank-you notes from the high school graduation party, parenting is just one damn thing after another. And maybe it’s best we don’t realize that, because if we saw, really saw, all that’s ahead, then I’m not sure that many of us would make it. I imagine myself sitting in an aisle seat on a Northwest Airlines flight to Beijing, poring over those baby books as everyone around me slept. If any of those books had even hinted at what was ahead, I might have hijacked the plane and demanded it return me to Minneapolis, asking for just a few more weeks of sleeping through the night before I committed to Momhood.
Three years later, when I got myself in trouble and was freaking out at the idea of pregnancy and labor, I was gabbling my worries to my friend Lorraine, who calmed my fears and told me I’d have no troubles at all with labor. A few months later, stuck at home with a newborn and an angry, angry three year old, I called Lorraine and shrieked, “Why didn’t you tell me THIS was the hard part?” She chuckled wisely and said, “A lot of times, it’s better not to know things in advance.”
Is ignorance truly bliss when it comes to what lies ahead? Probably. I’ve been thinking of that as I observe the recent Facebook adventures of another new family, two over-the-moon adoptive dads who post a stream of loving photos of their infant girl all with the hashtag #sheisperfect. Well, yes, she is, at least for now. But don’t hold too tightly to that idea, fellas, because she’s got more than “perfect” in her. She’s also got “human,” and that can get messy and exhausting and painful in some monumental ways. But that’s what you signed up for – the artfully posed family portraits are one part of the parenting trek, but so is the projectile vomiting at 2 a.m. So is the scorn, the defiance and the disapproval you might someday see from this same little person who rates her own hashtag right now, just because you love her that much.
I used to think that parenthood had an end-date, that there would be some moment when I had completed the assignment and could move on to my next all-consuming life obsession. Ha. I realize now that it’s a Job for Life in the ultimate sense. And if there’s a chance to be a guilty and worried mother in the afterlife, I wonder how many women snatch at the opportunity, even if it means sitting in the Uncomfortable Anteroom while everyone else frolics on fluffy clouds just outside the grimy, dust-streaked window.
I imagine my own mom, the dearly departed Katherine Clifford Kendrick, sitting on the afterlife equivalent of a DMV plastic chair with one broken leg, looking for a glimpse of me whenever she gets a chance, and nudging me to speak up or shut up or say thank you when she thinks I might be willing to listen. I wonder if I’ll get a chance to join her there, thumbing through old magazines, and trying to help my girls with what they need at the moment -- a great idea for which they give themselves credit, a quick heads up when they need a warning, or an open heart in a time when a little softness is what's required.
Job for Life. As if.