I read a book once. It was all downhill from there.
When a little plastic stick told me a baby was on the way, I gave that solid pink line a fake smile and swallowed some panic. This would be the first of many improvisations as a mother to be followed by a steady pace of acting the part. I researched the role of Mom, reading every last word of every last parenting book I could get my swollen hands on. I learned what to expect (the unexpected), how to origami hog tie my bundle of joy (the artful swaddle), and even devoted one horrifying evening to paragraphs on how to nurse my down and out post-labor vagina bits back to health (kegel party…not unlike but totally unlike a keg party). I spent nine months memorizing these lines just as I’d studied textbooks as a child. I would ace this test and look to the proud new papa to supply a golden star sticker for my scholarly efforts.
And true to books’ accounts of human gestational periods, 40 weeks later a son was born. I was content to play this part, I decided. I was calm. I was educated. I was the boss of this motherhood deal. I was just about to give the room a tutorial on my boobs and how they can feed folks when the devil entered and wrecked the world. She claimed to be the hospital’s Lactation Specialist. As I muffled giggles at what a doozy of a job that had to be, she showed me there was nothing to laugh about. This Ice Queen in sheep’s scrubs slapped a frigid hand atop my bosom and pinched. Frozen Fire! I shot wide eyes at her, unsure of what I’d done to deserve such fresh a hell and also worried that I’d skipped a chapter on What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting A Stranger Nurse To Tweek Your Lady Lumps. Without ever taking her gaze from my milk jugs, this cold stranger calmly stated what two years and one toddler later I know to be the truest of parenting truths.
A woman asked why I would supplement my infant’s diet of breast milk with powdered formula. I read an article to be sure a few ounces of fake juice wouldn’t hurt the hefty boy. A relative insisted sleep training my son would cause boat loads of harm to his development down the road. I read three books, two magazines, and one doctor’s letter to be sure my kid wouldn’t start killing people and kicking puppies as a result of letting him cry at bedtime. A friend insisted I only feed the young dude organic, steam-cleaned tofu something-or-another. I spent a day or five in the library to ensure that once-in-a-while meal of mac-n-cheese wouldn’t cause the child to grow a tail. Homeschooled kids are better testers. Well-dressed Gap babies learn early on to make better first impressions than, say, small humans clad in discount duds. Children who play an instrument, speak a foreign language, and perfect circus tricks are much more likely to avoid a life of crime. And as I most recently discovered after reading Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s The Conscious Parent, Shefali is a silly name, and children raised by highly engaged parents are scientifically proven to be 104.26% more successful individuals than those kids largely ignored by Mom and Pop. The doctor explains that when parents dedicate pure and singularly focused attention on their little ones, said younglings will become well-rounded, secure, and generally happy people. On the flip side, parents who are often distracted, flustered, and otherwise absent can lead to children developing behavioral issues. While I couldn’t stomach spending $50 for a mini pair of designer skinny jeans or serving my kid a bland and boring plate of cardboard tofu for a snack, the idea of being a more active presence in my child’s day didn’t seem so out of the box. I would win Hands-On Parenting, I vowed. I would win Mom.
As a stay-at-home parent, my days were already focused around the smallest, soggy-drawered man of the house. If I wanted to truly dominate this interactive mompetition, I’d have to take it up a notch:
- I used his tiny toothbrush in an effort to bond. He spit and mumbled “icky”. I like to think this was his incoherent sign of approval of my tartar-controlled show of solidarity.
- I get particularly hands-on at meal time. More specifically, I like to interact with his Happy Meal to show him that even this mama’s taste buds are in sync with his. Su McNugget es mi McNugget… err something like that.
- Story Time for the supremely cohesive mom & tot crew is a joy. Ever the gracious one, I insist he read his favorite books instead of listening to my boring, old tale-telling. As he cannot speak English, I observe as he picks his nose and reads silently. Dr. Shefali’s book promised brilliance, and despite the boogers and upside-down books, I just know we are getting there.
- Seeing eye to eye with a toddler is tricky, mostly because I am a solid six feet tall. So this hands-on mom got knees-on and spent one sunny Monday shuffling around on some halves of legs. The pint-sized precious thought this newest parenting trick a hoot for a few hours. He mimicked my broken gait and crawled about on his knees as well. To accommodate his shrinking I broke myself down to upper thighs and elbows and slid about like a fine, young Army recruit. But he copied as copy-cats do and slithered on his tiny arms. By noon we both flopped flat on our bellies unsure of the next logical step. Not to mention we’d yet to check the mail.
- Against all medical studies and parenting advice, I let my child watch TV. I remedy this alleged shortcoming by interacting the hell out of those colorful cartoons. Defying all sense of pride and rhythm, I make a point to participate in wild-armed, loud-voiced song-and-dance routines, joining the choir of limber Disney characters and encouraging my son to do the same. He sits still and staring at the floor most days with a demeanor some might mark as severe shame. I like to think he’s studying the art of The Hot Dog Dance.
- We aren’t your average couch potatoes, though, and some days stray from the sofa long enough for some lively, outdoor rumpus. To prove myself the ultimate interactive parent, I shove my person into wonderfully compromising positions for the sake of playtime. There is no Tonka truck I will not zoom, no puzzle I will not solve, no tunnel I will not squeeze through to show this boy his mom is all about some hands and putting them on his toys.
- So apparently the kid hates sharing his toys, and quickly begs to play the tantrum game. I oblige, matching his screams and wailing until we are both so engaged and interacting with decibels and fury, and I finally let him when we gets red in the face or cries or both. That, parents, is dedication.
- I, the much improved maternal robot, took to napping when he napped in the afternoon. I’d like to say I read somewhere that babies can sense a mother’s moral support three rooms and two levels of deep sleep away, but mostly all this hands-on activity just wore me out.
- The rubber ducky, aptly named Dub Rucky, hijacks a neon race car and sends it flying into a sailboat just as the vessel capsizes from striking the massive tip of a wash cloth. I swirl my arms through the soapy water, showing my sudsy son how on my hands are by orchestrating elaborate toy scenarios. He shrugs, ready for the lights and my hands to shut off, yawning towards bed. He lathers and rinses his own hair. Repeats. Best not to interrupt the mama when she’s interactive parenting.
Weeks of extreme hands-on parenting was exhausting. I was annoying myself and spilling obnoxious onto everyone else like a bottle with a busted nipple. Busted nipple. I found solace in this thought one night, two years and millions of failures after my first night as a mother.
This nurse, this stranger, she clamped my nipples with her frosty hands. I shot beggy eyes at her, silently pleading for her to go easy on me with the harsh words and harsher grip. I began to cry on mute, unsure if the titty twister or the imminent threat of bad news opened the flood gates. I held my son, a boy I had grown forever but only just met. She held my boob, a dry well which she seemed to be all too familiar with. I cried. She gave an exasperated humph and shook her head. I cried. She palmed my other boob and this newer, more arid blob seemed to infuriate her. I cried. It was the shame in finding you are so horribly lost when you could’ve sworn you knew the way. And as I wept tears flowed onto my chest cradled by a stranger. Perhaps the kindest words she could muster that night remind me today of why in life and parenting sometimes oblivious-&-winging-it is the absolute right wrong place to be:
“Ugh. You’re doing it all wrong. At least you’re trying, I guess.”