You know how, when you get pregnant, one of your friends can’t wait to tell you horror stories about her nine friends who had their babies in the back of cabs or were in labor for, like, a week or gave birth to the antichrist, but how she’s sure you’ll be fine and none of that will happen to you? For all you pregnant and pre-pregnant women out there who were thinking that your magnetism for negative input might diminish once you had your baby, brace yourselves. There’s a whole herd of parents out there waiting to tell you how you should cherish every second while they’re little because (insert disappointed sidelong glance at their own offspring who are standing right there) everything is downhill once they can run around and talk.
This is disconcerting for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that that tyke who’s listening to his mom diss him to me is going to need a dumptruck of therapy. After one such mother stopped by our table at a restaurant, the little girl – maybe seven years old – said, “Yeah, my mom tells us all the time how she wishes we were still babies.” That’s some solid parenting right there. Little shout out from your kid, mom.
It’s also weird, isn’t it, to walk up to a stranger (me) in the coffee line, ask how old her baby is and then indirectly reveal that you don’t particularly like your ten year old? For Pete’s sake, my FedEx guy chatted with me the other day about how he wishes his five year old were still five months. That’s kind of a lot of Oprah-ing to tack onto the, “Sign here, please,” moment, don’t you think?
I have two theories about why this keeps coming up.
First, people like to complain. I do too. It’s a non-threatening way to bond: “I hate my boss,” puts you into a conversation with just about anyone. Opening with, “I love my job,” is more dangerous. Not a lot of people do, so you’re putting yourself in the minority, plus you risk sounding, well, lucky. Lucky feels…vulnerable. Also maybe oblivious or dim-witted. Coming from the northeast (Puritan, understated) and a difficult family situation conditioned me to be very aware of the negative potential in any situation. It takes a lot of work some days to let that lie and pick up the equally possible positive thread instead. Maybe these parents are letting the anxiety of a negative outcome overwhelm their enjoyment of who their kids are turning out to be: a talking, walking child with an extending track record of preferences and skills means limits on your infant’s previously unlimited potential. Complaining may feel like a socially acceptable and safe, if indirect, outlet for that anxiety.
I don’t mean to be judgemental of course. It is also possible that their child is exhibiting distinct terrorist tendencies (stockpiling weaponry, a prediliction for holidays in desert training camps) and is deserving of parental disappointment early in life. That could be. Maybe that seven-year-old girl is disconcertingly adept with a handgun and kidnaps other little girls on the weekends. In that case, yes, her mother should be worried and I take it back all my analysis. Ma’am, you can disregard that previous paragraph.
That case excepted, this brings us to my second theory: that it’s incredibly easy to project onto a baby and having to stop is challenging. I know. I do it. At five months, your baby can be the next President or the next breakout Olympian. Losing that option when your baby turns into an actual person with her own interests has got to be a disappointment if you didn’t think about how to manage those unconscious expectations before your kid got all back chatty and able to run away from your conversations about electoral politics and the luge course in Calgary. Babies are 100% potential. We were too. I remember thinking when I was twelve that, barring sudden advances in bionics, the door to becoming a professional gymnast had almost definitely closed for me. That was quite a blow. Also very disappointing: realizing that my increasing physical similarity to my “family” probably meant that I was not the lost fourth child of the Swedish monarchy.
Here’s the thing: a kid who wants to wear rain boots and only the top half of a bikini out to run errands is very different from an infant you can dress up in that adorable outfit with the matching hat. Sure you can pick up a baby and put her where you want her and she can’t really object. You can talk to her about your day – you’re supposed to, in fact, to help her language skills develop yada yada yada- but there’s a good chance that once there are really two of you in the conversation, you’ll have to start making room for her preference for talking about edible paste and not how unbelievable it was when your one friend didn’t show up on time after you went to all that trouble setting up a nice lunch and everything at that place that’s hard to get into and what the hell was she thinking anyway bringing her new boyfriend who doesn’t know how to chew with his mouth closed when you were hoping for a nice afternoon out? Which is a big shift.
So we’re back to anxiety. You just don’t know what’s next. It’s a legitimate fear that the narrowing of your kid’s options that goes along with developing a personality and a voice (literal and metaphorical) will result in the option that’s left being “mid-level office manager.” Or “crack whore.” So yeah, it’s nerve-wracking. But here’s the thing: what am I going to do about it? Nothing different really. Aside from not forcing her into intensive early training on the violin, the tennis court or the half pipe, I plan on loving her (of course – as I’m sure these other parents love their kiddos), and focusing on enjoying her for wherever she is, six months or six years or sixty, and getting to know who she’s turning out to be. (Which will be even better advice the older she gets, right? Who likes going home from college and being reminded of the braces you had when you were fifteen rather than seen for the sexy sophomore you are now?)
Displacing my unconscious anxiety about who she’ll be or, worse, who I wished she’d be, onto her little self is a bad choice for both of us, I’d think. There’s no way to control for where she ends up – that’ll be a combination of her choice and circumstance – so I’m just focusing on providing her with self-confidence, a great work ethic, a clear playing field and as many self-regulating skills as I can to help her approach her options with a calm heart and clear vision.
So anyway, that’s my Monday Theory. I hope all these parents who keep wishing for babies are also spending a lot of time enjoying their actual kids. Or making more babies. But lay off the reminders if you would. I need that coffee I was headed for when you stopped me. Really. A lot.