For the science fair in fifth grade, I studied color blindness. The project guidelines were fairly liberal (after all, we were only 11), so while other kids built ramps, exploded things, and left food out to mold, I took a more “foolproof” approach: research. Lots of it.
I set up an appointment with a local eye doctor and acquired a model of the eye. I printed out tests of colored dots and searched for articles on microfilm machines (because that’s what you did before the Internet—weird). I learned the difference between rods and cones, and glued clip-art eyeballs onto poster board.
Then, on the date of the science fair, I set up my tri-fold display board and authoritatively answered questions from visitors. I even recall a man with his wife who found out he was color blind for the first time through my project.
“What do all those little dots mean?"
“Oh, honey, of course it's a bird."
“A bird? I don't see any bird!"
"Dear! Well, you must be colorblind! No wonder you can never match your clothes …"
Then he and his wife moved on quickly, the man still glancing quizzically over his shoulder.
Even at the young age of 11, the research approach worked for me. I did not have to experience mishaps involving fire, living things, or explosive flour. I simply became a fifth-grade expert on one topic, presented the information, and diagnosed a man with an eye condition—without even being a doctor.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I assumed babies would work a little like my fifth-grade science fair project. Do enough research, get some reliable results. I did not say that out loud, of course. But by that point I had earned a few more A’s and a college degree, so surely I could figure this parenting thing out. Right?
On the day my son was born, so many things went, well, “not textbook.” My admission to the hospital began with a faulty IV attempt that left blood squirting on the floor, followed by a non-working epidural, a rare tear during delivery, and finally a visit to the Operating Room still in stirrups to have my insides repaired by a tag-team of doctors. For three hours.
In hindsight, I should have accepted that labor experience as a metaphor for life with kids—you know, the whole "not textbook" part. Instead, while I was very literally knocked on my butt in those early months, I turned to the coping strategy I knew best: research.
Message boards. Texting / calling / stalking every mom I knew. Practically memorizing kellymom.com. I still have a half dozen books on my Kindle ordered at 3 a.m., during my son’s first year of life.
I was the ultimate first-time mom: full of google factoids, and very low on sleep. (A terrible combination, I have since learned.)
I tried, quite earnestly, to apply all of my research and turn my baby into an A-worthy science project. Research in, results out! Although I never said it, I think somewhere down deep I wanted my kid to become a beautiful display board testifying to my own amazing parenting.
But I wasn’t doing amazing that year. Nursing was hard. Adding a tiny human to our marriage was hard. Not sleeping was hard. Even when the baby was asleep, my brain felt frozen and awake, analyzing the minutiae of our day. I sometimes found myself driving circles around the city on a dangerously-empty gas tank so my baby would stay asleep in the car. My anxiety was high, and I could not see that it may have been linked to postpartum hormones and a difficult delivery.
None of my research worked, at least not in the way I wanted. So, although my baby was doing great—thriving, in fact!—I often felt like I was failing.
No one actually gave me a grade on that first year of parenting, of course (thank God). And over time, things started to feel easier. My baby grew up, I quit nursing, and that squishy, crying bundle grew into a walking little boy who called me “mama.” Slowly, it felt like I could breathe.
Then, just when we were enjoying long nights of sleep again, we had another baby. (Somehow it seems those two things may be related?)
To my surprise, the second baby transition has been much smoother. Still, there is something about a baby that will turn even the most reasonably sane person desperate.
One day not long ago, I found myself chasing a dark rabbit trail of despair. I was getting a little anxious for some predictability, a shower, and perhaps a baby who would drink from something other than my chest. Our newborn daughter had been in the world for an entire 12 weeks—the magical age when the baby books claim you’ll be hitting your stride—but our days still felt foggy and off-beat. The baby was taking 30-minute naps and refused a bottle or pacifier. I was over-caffeinated and under-bathed. All day I found myself sneaking away to google something, trying to fight against my inner sense of failure. Did I need to schedule more? Swaddle more? Buy three different kinds of bottles? Order a custom-made pacifier?
That night, as I nursed my daughter to sleep, I felt too weary to even scroll social media, so I finally put down my phone and held her with both arms, closing my eyes and humming to the rhythm of the rocker. When I opened my eyes and looked down, she was asleep, her little fingers wound tightly around two of mine.
So I sat there. Doing nothing but holding her tiny hand right back. And in the dark of the nursery, with our hands laced together, I could see the truth so clearly:
Babies are not science fair projects.
Babies are people.
I know. It seems so obvious, like something I should have figured out in fifth grade.
But like seeing dots and never knowing they hid a bird, I have not always clearly seen the person inside my babies—especially in the early days, when their personalities feel clouded behind so many cries and needs, and when advice comes at you from every angle like dodgeballs in elementary school P.E.
I once thought babies came in standard sizes, maybe with a few alterations here and there. But it turns out babies are much like everyone else I know: beautifully imperfect and wonderfully human. Mothering a baby is less like creating a science fair display and more like developing a relationship.
Research is still my default mode, but on my better days, I find myself doing less frantic googling and a little more surviving, a little more laughing, a little more praying for the souls inside those tiny bodies who will one day grow into fifth-graders, teenagers (Lord, help us), and adults—maybe even with babies of their own.
I’m discovering that one of the central callings of motherhood is not research, but vision—the ability to see past the challenges of this moment or phase, to watch for clues about who my children are, and to imagine who they might become. Perhaps the baby phase is so hard because we are only beginning to see the little person we have been given to raise. Like watching the outer edges of the sun as it peeks up over the horizon, the experience is both breathtaking and makes us wish we could crawl back into bed. But if we keep looking in the right direction, there will be so much more to see.