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Those early years

I was speaking with a mom on the phone. It was a business call of sorts, but since we know each other and she knows I’m sympathetic, she called while her kids were in the tub.

As you can imagine, our call was punctuated with instructions to her kids, the sounds of splashing, and kids asking for things.

“Oh, Suki,” she sighed. “It’s so much.”

I know exactly what she was talking about. One spring, either my daughter’s first spring when she was a baby or the next when she was a toddler, I went to do a search on the Internet. I had to figure out what was wrong with me.

Every evening when my husband got home from work, he’d find me collapsed on the couch, staring into space. I felt exhausted to the point that when I sat down, I could feel every nerve in my body throbbing. My muscles felt spent, like I was hiking a mountain every day.

I decided I had leukemia.

I made an appointment with my doctor, which is not an easy thing to do when you have two little kids. I told her how I had been feeling and said I wanted to get a blood test.

“I can get some blood work done,” she answered, “But I can already tell you what’s wrong: You have two children.”

As you may have noticed, I’m a pretty energetic person. I need a lot of what I call downtime, but in my case that means time to think and write, not time to veg. I actually hate sitting still for no reason. I’m impatient with any entertainment that doesn’t grip me, and always keep a book or my computer handy when I’m watching a movie. I never go to a concert without my notebook.

But when I had two small kids in the house, I pretty much achieved nothing. It was all I could do to get through a day. The only activity I scheduled every week for the kids was Music Together. My son went to preschool three mornings a week, and during that time I got household stuff done or went grocery shopping.

I remember realizing one day that my mother had gone through this with five kids: for fifteen years she had a child under five in her life, usually two! How did she do it?

I asked her and she said she didn’t really remember much. She said the main thing was that she had “no ambition except to get through the day.”

I remember it differently: I remember my mother as a whirlwind of activity. She was a piano teacher, she ran a cheese co-op with her friends, she played music at church.

I also remember that she let go of a lot: We didn’t have the world’s neatest house. (I remember a friend of mine saying, “I like going to your house — it’s messy and fun!”) She didn’t try to have anything like a “real” career. If she needed to go out, she would just send any remaining kids to go play with friends. Most of the time there was no need to pay a formal babysitter or make “playdates.”

In modern times, we expect a lot more from moms. Not only are they supposed to have a career of their own, but we expect them to set their kids up with a full schedule of activities and friends. And since everyone else has these scheduled lives, we aren’t around for each other as much as my mom’s friends were around for her.

And it’s exhausting. Researchers say that modern life is literally exhausting: Americans got on average ten hours sleep a night in the nineteenth century. Now we’re down below 7! Cars and highways have created so many more possibilities for us yet those possibilities end up making us miserable. If we can get our children Brazilian jujitsu classes with a master and we DON’T do it, aren’t we scarring them for life?

It’s all terribly exhausting. We moms sit around thinking that everyone else is thinking we’re layabouts. We sit around thinking that our husbands (or wives) think that we’re layabouts. We can’t remember simple things, like what we just went into the bathroom to get. We spend the same amount of time putting together our children’s fall schedules as the CEOs of major corporations spend making decisions on what the company should be doing this quarter.

Yet it seems so trivial, so not worth being exhausted over. We remember before we had kids, and the things that really deeply exhausted us. I’ll put my partial list here: climbing the cone of a volcano, writing a novel in six weeks, studying for excellerated Latin tests at Stanford, running Bay to Breakers. That all seems so real, so important.

Yet what we’re doing with our kids is real, and it is important. The under-five stuff is largely stuff they’re going to forget in a conscious sense. How many of us can remember our moms giving us a specific bath on a specific day when we were four? We might remember it if it’s the day that mom was giving us a bath and she burst into tears. Or if it was the day that mom was giving us a bath and there was an earthquake.

It’s real and important in a different sense. In a physical memory sense. Your under-fives are learning from you in a physical way right now. They are learning from your caresses. They are learning from how you dry them off with a soft towel. And yes, they’re learning when you get mad and yell at them, even though you knew that it wasn’t the Positive Discipline thing to do.

All of this is registering, and it’s forming how they face the world. We’re all making mistakes, but we’re also all being loving, caring moms as best we can. And that’s all we need our kids to know. Our under-fives are experiencing the world in a way that we can’t remember. But it’s very real.

And you are very important.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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