I haven’t lost my mind, folks; this peace and calm is INNER. Well, our home is a more peaceful, calm place than the home we lived in last year, but there is a lot more noise happening in here with a thirteen-month-old moving around and playing with thirteen-month-toys. But somehow, I came through this first year as a mother a calmer, more peaceful person. I’d like to celebrate that. I’d also like to share a few things I’ve learned about how I did it, in the hopes that that helps anyone who might be reading.
I didn’t write much around Walt’s first birthday, because I hosted a party. It was a celebration of his birth, but I wanted to celebrate the anniversary of my birthing day as well as the day Walter arrived, Earthside. I decided to throw a grown up party, and I think I played the hostess rather well. I made jokes about feeling like Clarissa Dalloway, who goes out to buy flowers for her party on the first page of Mrs. Dalloway. It took time and energy. I’m also learning how to design a better space for Do Not Faint, which feels a bit different from a blog, now. People come here looking for different things, and I’ve got quite an archive on a few topics. I’d like to see what I can do with that, and I love learning this language where I type code and get to change things, myself. I digress, however.
I’m writing today, because there is more to this fundamental shift that happens after the first year of parenthood than we seem willing to talk about. I needed some time after the one-year mark to process All The Feelings. The most remarkable realization has occurred to me while processing those feelings–I have more calm, and less anxiety, in my life. I feel more calm. More importantly, my family made conscious choices to make a peaceful home for ourselves. We moved (utter chaos–September was just awful) into a lovely apartment that feels like a home in part because it’s the first floor of the house. When the upstairs neighbors aren’t home, it kind of feels like it’s just us. There’s a yard and a porch out front and out back. Only three families. Less rent, and more room in the budget. More room in the house. The building’s owner is neither loud nor deeply involved in any tenant’s personal lives, like the last one was. But how on earth do I have more peace and calm with an almost-toddler in the house?
I have become more observant, and less critical. I watch and listen more, and I try to lighten up on looking for meaning in any patterns I see.
I manage my anxiety in part by looking ahead and what’s coming up in my life and thinking about how it might make me feel, so that I’m not surprised. I don’t do well with big surprises. But too much thinking about the future leads to “What if [insert scary thing] happens?” and, having a good imagination, I can work myself into quite a panic that way. This is one reason I need to see a therapist so often: if I don’t talk about my fears or have someone suggest that I focus on the present moment, my mind and my anxiety disorder run off with my thoughts. I learned to parent my child using some of the tools I use to manage those thoughts, by observing some patterns and trusting my own judgment where I feel comfortable, while asking a more objective or more expert mind to help me out when I feel that I’m out of my depth.
I have been around enough babies to trust my own judgment about Walt’s physical and cognitive development, so I stay away from lists of milestones, even if they are well-meaning. (My only sibling is a tenured professor of developmental psychology–I definitely believe that “around such and such an age” really leaves a lot of room for deviation from the average.) I make a conscious effort to compare him with other children only to enjoy how different they are, even as tiny babies.
When I start to worry, I figure out what the question is, and I ask someone who can give me as definitive an answer as possible. In other words, I find an expert who is willing to answer my questions, and I defer to that expert. We interviewed our pediatrician before our son’s birth, and he had really thoughtful answers to most of our questions, great explanations as to why he couldn’t answer or great ideas about how to find an answer. Sure enough, he’s still like that. It looked to me like tiny Walter’s left eye was sometimes a bit crossed. The pediatrician looked at the skin on either side of the baby’s nose, used that tiny light they shine in babies’ eyes, and said that it looked that way because there was a teeny bit more skin between the baby’s left eye and nose. That would never have occurred to me!
I loved working with infants and toddlers, when I worked in childcare, and one thing about early motherhood that excited me the most, when I was pregnant, was that I would get to see my child’s ability to express his unique personality better, using the limited tools available to him. In other words, I have been in this from the start to get to know who my son is and am not particularly interested in shaping his personality. I want to model behavior that I believe to be good and important. I want to influence his beliefs, when it comes to feeling optimistic about people and the world. I do not feel a particular desire for him to be introverted, extroverted, intrepid, timid, and I enjoy seeing differences between his personality and mine.
Please understand that I don’t think it’s better or worse to engage a child in activities that you prefer, or wait for the child to initiate an activity, and parenting obviously includes both.
My point is, quite simply, that my mind gets more rest if I wait and watch, rather than hope for a particular outcome.
Here’s my best example of that: if I had read all sorts of books on sleep and planned on Walter sleeping in a crib for reasons x, y and z, I would have had a lot less sleep this year. Knowing that I had had to be (gently) kicked out of my parents bed, long after it was a comfy fit, I accepted my mother’s generous offer to bring a gorgeous, solid-wood co-sleeper/little crib. My plan was that newborn Walter would sleep in that, and then we’d see if he needed a crib or to share the king-sized bed we bought when I was pregnant and thinking about sharing a bed with a squirmy child. (I was, I am told, a very squirmy sleeper.) It’s a good thing we didn’t buy a crib; even the co-sleeper ended up being used as a laundry hamper. The child simply sleeps longer and more deeply if he is within reaching distance of another human. He used to refuse to sleep longer than a few minutes on his own, and now it’s about two hours, maximum. It doesn’t need to be me, near him. He has just always slept better “on” someone or next to someone (this was pretty awesome for visitors, especially grandparents). We have the cutest little rocker/napper/chair that I did want him to take naps in. The truly adorable mobile would entertain him long enough for me to go to the bathroom, sometimes. Other times, it just kept him safe while I tried to listen to the fan instead of his cries. Now, I can think of a specific family we know that needed and still needs a crib and some planning and a few (good) sleep books, because every baby does not just let you know, the way ours did, that “Hey, everyone will get lots of sleep if we share this bed!” Some babies send more mixed signals along the lines of, “Hey, nobody is getting sleep, tonight, no matter what you do! Good luck with this!” But when I saw a cartoon, recently, that depicted a very-awake toddler standing, holding the rail of a crib and looking down at exhausted parents, asleep on the floor of the nursery, I thought about how that would have been us, had we not been open to the idea of letting our “Tiny Overlord,” as my husband likes to call him, sleep in our bed.
Another example, even more controversial: my husband, Nathan, and I did what I consider to be satisfactory research into the vaccine controversy, and we went to our interview with our pediatrician wondering whether we would choose to vaccinate our son on a delayed schedule or the schedule recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. We wanted him vaccinated and were not convinced by any of the arguments against it. I understand some of the fears, and I’m really glad that everyone is now paying a lot more attention to what goes into vaccines. (Less mercury? Yes, please!) All the same, the question was when, not if. The pediatrician we chose had a compelling argument, and we agreed on a schedule. I now defer to him, and no longer research the vaccines my son has already received. It’s done. It’s over. We all did the best we could with the information we had. I took my questions to a pediatrician with higher-than-average expertise (that was rather accidental on our part–he just turned out to have specialized knowledge), felt satisfied with the answers, observed the satisfactory results and stopped asking the same questions.
“There is no risk-free pregnancy.” Those words from the perinatal mental health expert I saw, preconception, were so important to me and my husband. I still carry them in my heart. There is no risk-free life. I cannot protect my family from so many scary things. I do what I can, and then I find somewhere else to focus my mind. That is my advice for parents, everywhere, having put a whole year of experience under my belt: address your fears, but focus on what’s in front of you, right now. It’ll change in a minute.