I’ve just released Peter Parker from his leash. His little terrier legs are running free at the dog park. Four year old Cole isn’t racing after his best friend like he usually does; instead he’s doing some awkward sort of calisthenics. I’ve seen this dance before.
“Why didn’t you go before we left the house? There’s no bathroom here.”
“I have to pee Mom!” If it wasn’t abundantly clear, now he’s grasping at his crotch in addition to bouncing around. I have an urge to cross my own legs and hope he doesn’t injure himself.
The dog’s long gone, chasing a dove and stopping to sniff unscooped pooh. It is nine a.m. and already I feel like the day is not going according to plan.
I exhale just a touch dramatically. “OK, go by the tree right here. Don’t pull your pants all the way down, no one wants to see your nakey bum.”
Cole’s gotten just what he wanted, a chance to join the cult of manhood—public urination.
And me? How did I become this person? This shameless mother allowing her kid to just pull it out and pee willy nilly?
Cole finishes his business and runs off to call his dog in a high pitched voice.
I never thought I would be this mother. The one who lets her kid lead the way. The one who decides not to fight about peeing in a park.
From my earliest memories, when I looked into the crystal ball of my future I had just one certainty: to be a teacher. So I studied and became one and I loved it. Not every day, not the stinky kids with no concept of personal space, but a whole lot more often than not. Loved the performance part of the job, the captive audience. Loved teaching English, reading aloud that part in Of Mice and Men where George shoots Lenny, my voice cracking each and every time. Even loved grading papers, seeing inside the mind of teenagers trying to figure it all out.
As with all stories, we need some dramatic tension, rising action, to see how the heroine handles challenge. Enter motherhood. The foil for my expertise, my carefully researched teaching methods and well organized existence. From competent, confident, dare I say capable, I turned into a person who knew absolutely nothing.
Sure I was the oldest of six kids, not afraid of touching a baby or even changing a diaper. But what does a child need? Not just physically but the whole rest of the package: brain, heart, soul? How do you turn it into a good human? That part kept me up at night. I’d met so many kids, seen the effects of every home situation. Even with the experience of thousands of teenagers I still wasn’t sure of the proper formula for ending up with a grown offspring--one not imprisoned, literate, polite, clean, unimpregnated. I knew what to avoid but that didn’t seem to be enough.
Graduate school didn’t prepare me for being a mom but it did teach me how to research. So I put on my glasses, dusted off the library card, and dove in. Milestones, warning signs, sleep techniques, I ate it up. Every word telling me how to measure success—the baby’s and my own. Rolling over? Check. Picking up Cheerios with two fingers? Check.
The week before my son was born, Hurricane Katrina hit. My husband won’t let me watch anything else on television; he keeps talking about how this is history in the making. I can’t take it. All that suffering, people on roofs, in boats, temporary shelters. Sitting on my couch, grunting to stand up, imagining my new baby; floods and death seem to be in a parallel universe, a terrifying world where nature itself was out to get people. The mothers with crying children clutching a stuffed animal. Mothers who can’t shield their children or even tuck them in at night. I realize that I am not in control: I will be bringing a baby into a world where bad things happen, no matter if I take my prenatal vitamins or lock the deadbolt each night.
I compensate for this natural disaster disarray with order, the thing I know. I write down when the baby nurses, on what side, for how long, just like the nurses showed me at the hospital. Poop or pee? They weighed the diapers to measure intake, but I left that part out. The information has no purpose but it comforts me, organizing the chaos.
The yellow baby book has a duck and wooden blocks on the cover. It is filled with each measurement and each comment from the doctor. First time baby rolls over is preceded by ‘first time baby attempts to roll over.’ Monthly weight, date of each tooth’s appearance. I excel at record keeping. The baby book doesn’t have enough space so I buy a journal too, writing little paragraphs about charming moments nearly every day.
“Cole lay on my chest while I read. I think he enjoys my heartbeat.”
“Cole passes a lot of gas lately, especially while sleeping.” My poor son has this memorialized both in video and text.
If love can be expressed through data, my son is the most adored child on the planet. And it is love, trying to fight off the chaos and uncertainty of life with carefully orchestrated benchmarks and record keeping. But some of the magic of watching this little person discover his hand for the first time or watch the overhead fan is lost when I measure and graph it.
Something happens along the way from frantic new mom to mother of a toddler. It might be related to getting more sleep, hormones calming, or just realizing that my son wakes up each morning still surviving my parenting. I settle in. I find my groove. One day my dad asks how parenthood is treating me. Instead of responding off the cuff, I think for a moment.
“I’m content,” I answer. It is the first time I can remember feeling this way, not just in motherhood but in my whole life. I’m not angling for any destination or planning my next move. I’m actually noticing each day, allowing it to unfold instead of rushing along to check it off the list.
At the park I look at my son in awe of his amazing climbing skills, biting my lip when I want to rush in and make sure he doesn’t fall. His raised eyebrows and open mouthed delight as he goes down the slide totally make my moment of discomfort worth it.
By the time we’re ready to potty train, I don’t ask my circle of friends for advice. I do buy a character themed tiny toilet but no how-to books. I figure, he’ll do it someday. Very few adults still have moms taking care of their rear ends (at least that’s what I tell myself). We take things at our own pace and I can’t believe how zen I’m being. Accident? These things happen. Another accident ten minutes later? Let’s get some clean pants.
When a second child comes along, I’m tempted to change my game plan when it comes to potty training. Would it be so wrong to Alpha Mom things just for a month to get the annoyance out of the way? Little Brother is a wise one though, resisting from birth any attempts for me to control his existence.
I never thought I’d be a laid back mom. I try not to run for the camera when something is happening, rather take a mental snapshot. It is a constant struggle. When you kill the moment, essentially asking a kid to pause then restart when the camera is ready, something is lost.
I’m still obsessive about wellness exams and vaccinations, dental visits and eye checkups. My boys take a daily vitamin. They wear helmets when they ride bikes and sit in the appropriate booster seats for their size. Some caution is certainly justified when raising a child. But that thing about childhood, the thing we all get nostalgic about, the thing that makes strangers smile when they see kids? That’s the magic of exploring and finding things out for the first time—before life and reality gets in the way.
As for milestones and that horrible chart at the doctor’s office? The one that says what your child should be doing at each age? I don’t look at it. No idea what new skills my son should be achieving. He’s a terrible runner, something I surely hope he grows out of, but I haven’t looked into physical therapy for it. He’ll learn to read someday; he’ll hit puberty. It will all happen on his schedule. I won’t have my head in a book, checking to see if he’s doing it just right. I hope he won’t be peeing on a tree at that point, but if he has to go then I guess we’ll all survive.
Eliana Osborn is a writer, mother, and part time English professor living in the southwest. She has published in a variety of commercial and literary magazines and dreams of the day when Diet Coke will be acknowledged as a food group.