“Maybe I should just take two pastries,” I think while deciding between a Danish and a bagel, part of the continental breakfast. I recently stopped breastfeeding, but my appetite somehow missed the message that my body can slow down. I opt for both and take a seat.
At the conference table, my colleagues excitedly chat, their conversation shifting from presentations to family. The legal services organization I work for is about to begin a daylong meeting, and I scan my phone for updates on my son’s morning. I tune back to the present just as a colleague shares her upcoming vacation plans. Her daughter will be home from college, and they’ve planned a summer of concerts and weekend hiking trips. Her face lights up as she talks, she’s counting down the days until they’re together.
“Wow, how awesome,” I interrupt. “You just, you seem so excited to be with your child!” A filter is one of the many things I’ve lost in postpartum life. I frequently fan-girl and dole out compliments without hesitation.
“Of course I’m excited,” she smiles and shrugs. “We love being together. We raised kids we like.” She continues talking about her daughter and the summer.
As she talks, I notice something in her expression, something I often overlook in this parenting journey. Her smile is one of pure joy. Joy of anticipation, the excitement of the prospect of spending time with the person you raised, a person you actually like. I’ve seen many expressions of parental pride. This is different. The joy radiating off her face stays with me long after the meeting.
There’s a lot that bothers me about the legal education system. The student loan debt, the solitary work, an educational philosophy that prioritizes competition and risk-aversion. However, I love the profession’s emphasis on questions and research. As a result, I’m a compulsive researcher, thinking I can search and read my way through challenges. I confront motherhood with a similar approach: what does the research say? What can I read, who can I talk to?
In some ways, this helps. We found a daycare we love after hours of searches and spreadsheets. I navigated the state’s byzantine parental leave benefits thanks to many afternoons of whispered phone calls with my insurance, while my newborn napped on my chest. And, after exhausting myself and the relevant literature, I decided formula would save my sanity and stopped pumping at work. Game changer.
In other ways, like everything with motherhood, I’ve been … humbled. There are far more questions without clear answers. Sometimes, I just have to step back and observe. I could (and did) read the books and consult with experts, and still, my baby wasn’t going to sleep through the night until he decided he was ready. (Which, by the way, was 18 months. See above re: exhaustion). I could tear my hair out wondering how I could help him walk; was I carrying him too much? Is this because I’m not around during the day? Once again, he walked when he wanted to, when he was ready.
Diego is who he is. I’m beginning to realize my role “raising a child” might just mean supporting him as grows into his true self. There’s no research on Diego’s True Self, and that makes stepping back and trusting even more important-and difficult.
Time-wise, we’re barely a blip on the screen in the lifespan of anxious mothering. Yet, the childrearing messages and pressure are already there. I feel expectations creeping in, the pull of pressure to “raise him” a certain way ratcheting up. “The research says students who attend high-quality preschool programs reap benefits beyond their college years,” my voice hums as I scroll through a preschool website advertising a robust art history curriculum. I feel guilty that he misses out on “extracurricular activities” because I work, as if the lack of music classes, the fact he’s never been to a Little Gym, will have lifelong ramifications for his well being .
And then I wonder, who am I trying to raise? A musical prodigy? An art dealer? Some societal definition of success?
What about raising someone I enjoy spending time with? Why not start there?
It’s been a year since our board meeting, yet I frequently think back to the conference room and my colleague’s joy.
That’s what I want.
I want to raise a kid I like. When my husband and I talk about raising Diego, we dream about raising a person who is curious, tenderhearted and likes to laugh. That’s the kind of person I want to spend time with.
If that’s the dream, so far, I think we’re on our way. On walks to the park, Diego gifts me a bounty of sticks, proud of himself with each discovery. When we read Oliver Jeffers, Here We Are, he bursts out “pizza!” and erupts in a fit of giggles, just as I’m gearing up to cry. He still has baby hair, but his curls come in strong after a sweaty afternoon nap, especially on the rare day he naps on me. And even though he’s never been to a gym class, the kid can dance. As in leave the dance floor if Shake Senora or Boogie Wonderland comes on—he will dazzle you with his moves.
I have absolutely no idea what Diego will become when he grows up. Who knows what impact his preschool, or other decisions we make, will have on his future. At this point, I don’t even know if he’ll get more rice on his spoon than on the floor during dinner.
I do know I like him, a lot. And someday, I hope my face lights up with excitement when I talk about plans to pick him up at college—or wherever he is—and go to a concert.
Guest post written by Fay Gordon. Fay lives in Northern California with her family and works for an organization that advocates for low-income older adults. She tries to scrapbook her observations and family memories here and you can also find her on Instagram.
Photo by N’tima Preusser.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode, Parenting for the Long Haul with Krista Gilbert.