The Moment I Learned to Really Love My Child

My mom was on a plane 39,000 feet above me; my husband was at work on the other side of The East River; my nearest friend was one state away; my baby was screaming in the crib, and I was on the living room floor completely losing my shit.

***

She was only a few weeks old, and I lacked experience. I read books, but no parenting book can prepare you to actually be a parent. It had been a nearly sleepless week, and we were both trudging through exhaustion. That day, I tried everything. Everything. Still, she cried. Frustration bubbled up, consuming me, and before the thought of doing something I’d later regret had the chance to wiggle it’s way into my head, I remembered what the nurses said: it’s okay to let her cry sometimes. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe. And never shake the baby.

I couldn’t attempt to soothe her for another bloodcurdling second, so I put her in her crib, shut the door, and walked away.

I pressed my forehead against the cool wood floor, curled my legs into my chest, and left my arms limp at my sides as I wrenched tears from my eyes. I heaved words assembled into desperate pleas at the universe. I prayed to a god I didn’t even know I really believed in for determination and strength to be the mother my crying child needed and deserved.

“Please help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make her stop crying. I’ll do anything,” I begged. “What do I do?”

I rolled over, spread-eagle, and stared at the ceiling. Her cries were reaching decibels so high that the glass chandelier was swaying ever so slightly, reflecting bits of light off the brass. I imagined melting into the floor to disappear from my new role as mother, to hide from that hideous light fixture, to hide from life.

“What do I do?” I repeated in a whisper. I pinched my eyes shut and searched my brain for advice I’d been given and chapters I’d read on this sort of thing. I couldn’t come up with anything that I hadn’t already tried. “Why do I suck at parenting so bad? What am I doing wrong?”

Someone – not me, not anyone in the hallway – someone outside and inside my head simultaneously in the most loving, calming voice said, “Just love her.”

I sat up, eyes wide. I knew that advice. It was something my mother had said to me once.

***

We were taking my dog on a walk through my neighborhood, urging contractions to kick in. I remember flashes of four-family brownstones as the words left her lips. I thought it was awful advice. How could I not love my child?

***

My eyes darted around the living room to see where the voice came from. “Hello?” I asked. No one answered, but I didn’t imagine the voice. It was as real as the cries resonating from behind my child’s bedroom door.  Was it God? Was it my own conscience?  “Just love her?” I asked back. As I repeated the words out loud, something clicked. In the moment when my baby needed me most I wasn’t loving her.

I carefully stood and pushed wet tangles of hair from my face with a fraction of new determination and strength. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, I’m alone, but I have to do it. She and I only have each other.

I opened her door. Her squishy arms, tiny fists, and face the color of confusion, were the first things I saw. Remorse twisted its way through my gut. Am I a horrible mother for letting her cry? I went to her crib with breath stuck in my chest, new tears falling from my eyes. I knew I had to comfort her.

I knew I had to love her.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

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Sock Surprise

She’s already ten minutes late; the bus is gone.

“Let me grab socks,” I say, unfolding a pair. I look at one purple sock and one green. “Did you do this?”

A small hand stifles her giggle. “Surprise!” She shouts.

“Not again,” I sigh. “Guess you need a new chore.”

If Confidence Were a Balloon

Slumped beneath the weight of her backpack, my daughter slinked from the school bus steps. Her ocean-blue eyes had faded to stormy skies and her skin was muted.

“How was your day?” I asked. I was concerned. Most days she raced off the steps with a grin so wide her eyes were shut. This day, she didn’t even wave.

“Fine,” she said. The word pushed out of her lips unwillingly, like the last puff of air leaving a balloon. She was deflated.

“Are you sure?” I pressed.

“Yep.” I watched her kick an invisible rock across the driveway.

“You know what?” I said as I cupped my hand around her small shoulder. “I think we should get some ice cream.”

“Really?” she stopped and looked up to me, squinting her eyes against the sun. I realized, in that moment, how fragile she still was. “Before dinner?”

“Yep,” I winked. “Let me get my keys.”

Ten minutes later, we were sitting at the table with bowls of pink frozen yogurt in front of us and I asked again, “Is everything alright, Hun? Did you have a bad day?”

My daughter stuffed her spoon deep into her cardboard bowl and swallowed a mouthful of creamy treat. “Sorta,” she shrugged.

I lowered my eyes to meet hers, pushed my bowl aside, and whispered, “wanna tell me about it?”

She looked away and tears started to gush from her eyes. “Mama, they chased me,” she sobbed. “I wanted to collect rocks and they chased me.” Her chest heaved, catching breath in spurts, and every bit of my heart crumbled.

“Who chased you, Hun?” I scooted my chair closer and wrapped my arms around her. I prayed that somewhere in my embrace she’d find strength, and a that my arms would take her sadness so I could store it under my own skin.

“My friends at recess,” she pressed against my heart like she did as a baby and continued to bawl. “I just needed some alone time.”

“Aww Sweetie, I think you were so brave for standing up for yourself. It can be hard to not give into the pressure of our friends,” I encouraged my daughter and inflated her balloon.

“I don’t know,” she said, then looked down at her sparkle-covered sneakers.

“Trust me. Sometimes our friends don’t understand when we need personal space,” I explained. “We have to tell them when we need to be left alone.”

“I did that Mama, but they kept chasing me!” she stuffed a spoonful of frozen yogurt into her mouth and wiped her face with her shirtsleeve. The parent in me wanted to scold her for staining her shirt, but the mother in me couldn’t. Instead, I handed her a sticky napkin to wipe the tears beneath her eyes.

Conversation comes easy for my little girl when she’s with family, but sometimes large groups of people drain her batteries. An only child for the first five years of her life, my daughter recognized at an early age that alone time helps her recharge. It’s especially necessary during the flurry of a long school day, when staying focused is so important.

“I know it can be frustrating. I need my personal space, too.” I took her soft cheek into my hand. “I get grumpy if I don’t have time to just be quiet and write each day.”

“Really?” she asked.

It is my job, as a mother, to ensure my daughter has enough air in her balloon, enough confidence, to succeed.

“Really,” I said. “Just keep reminding them. And if they don’t get it, it will be okay. At least you know what’s best for you.” I half-hugged her shoulder, then took a bit of my melted yogurt. “Mmm! Is this tomato flavor?”

My daughter laughed and straightened the slump in her shoulders. “Mama, you’re so silly. It’s strawberry!”

Photo courtesy of Seabass Creatives/Unsplash

Why Lockdown Drills Scare Me More Than My Child

Each day, I watch my daughter climb the steps of the big yellow school bus on her way to class. As it speeds off with her inside, it pulls the breath from my chest along with it. As much as I hate to admit it, the violent world we live in forces a small part of me to wonder if she will return. But as soon as that thought enters my mind, I push it back out. If I allowed those thoughts to dwell, I would drive myself crazy considering the horrible possibilities. But now my daughter is old enough to understand that, too. She sees more than cotton candy and plastic ponies. She sees the danger.

***

“Okay, guys. Everyone sit quietly and wait for the drill to be over.”

I overheard my daughter talking in her playroom, so I went in to check on her. She had some of her dolls lined up in a sitting position, shoulder to shoulder. “What are you doing, Hun?” I asked her, taking a spot on the floor next to her. I folded my legs underneath me to reach her level.

“We’re having a lockdown drill,” she said, nonchalantly shrugging her small shoulders. The hair on my arms raised. I couldn’t believe my six-year-old had to experience that kind of thing.

“What’s a lockdown drill?” I asked, pushing a rogue hair away from her face. I needed to know more, to know if these drills were affecting her.

“We have them in school,” she replied. “We sit really quiet by the backpacks and a police officer pretends to be a villain by rattling the door handle.” Tears clouded my vision, but I didn’t dare let one fall to my cheeks.

“How many lockdown drills have you had?” I asked. I pulled her into my lap. My parenting instincts kicked in and I had a visceral desire to protect her. I’m a mama bear protecting my cub.

“So far, two times,” she shrugged again.

I remember fire drills from school. We’d line up and quietly walk outside in a single-file line away from the building. A fireman would be at his truck timing our exit to safety. I’m also familiar with tornado drills. I’m from the Midwest, so tornados were pretty common. We’d sit crisscross applesauce in the hallway, lined up knee-to-knee, with our heads tucked securely in our laps. We’d cover our neck with our hands for protection. Although it was painful sitting like that for what seemed like forever, we looked forward to it as a welcomed break from classwork. I can’t imagine feeling the same about a lockdown drill. Angry people with guns are a different kind of threat than a natural disaster. There are too many unknown variables.

“Does that scare you?” I asked her.

“Not as much as Star Wars,” she looked away from me, distracted by her dolls.

I could feel the vein in my neck begin to expand and contract. My young, sweet daughter understands that there are predators out there that we have to prepare for. I don’t know if I’m ready to hand over the keys for her to drive herself to safety yet. I’m not ready for her to grow up. I know I can’t shelter her under the protection of our roof forever, but first grade seems too soon for the veil to be lifted. I want her to think of unicorns and Santa Clause instead of bad guys and bullets.

I once asked my friend, Nina Parrish, a well-respected teacher, mother, and business owner in Fredericksburg her opinion on lockdowns. She told me, “Unfortunately, the reality is that we have violence in our schools. There have been active shooters in elementary schools, and the schools would be irresponsible if they did not prepare.  Lockdown drills ensure that students and teachers know what to do if the worst case scenario does arise.” But that doesn’t make it any less scary for anyone involved; children, school staff, parents, police officers – everyone is affected by these drills. But what’s worse? Not being prepared? Still, my fists clench and bile rises from my belly when I imagine what it’s like to be in her classroom during a lockdown drill. Seeing the children piled into the corner, being told to be quiet while the person with a gun threatens their lives.

***

At the end of each day, when she climbs back down those big bus steps smiling and waving, I exhale with relief. Another day of school has passed and everything is fine. I know my daughter is home, safe.

My heart strings have tightened because I know the older she gets, the less I can protect her from every scrape, heartbreak, bully, and villain. And I know the older she gets, the more I have to trust her to follow her own instincts. The more I have to entrust in the world to keep her safe. The more I have to let go.

Until then, I will continue protecting her one mama bear moment at a time.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Davies on Unsplash

Could I Please Pee in Peace? As a Mom, it’s Not Likely.

I quickly and quietly shut the door, sit on the porcelain seat, and gather my wad of white paper. I exhale loudly and shrug my shoulders, trying to relax because a moment of silence is worth more than gold in my house.

But instead of relaxing and doing what I came here to do, I get distracted and start noticing the layers of clumpy blue and pink toothpaste mixed with stray hairs in the sink. Gross. When was the last time I cleaned in here?

“Mommy!” my six-year-old shouts from the other side of the door, jostling me from my thoughts. “Sven poopied in the house again.” Of course he did. He ate whole wheat rotini and alfredo right from the garbage earlier.

Sven is my seventy-five pound gluten-intolerant dog who frequently digs through the garbage for leftovers of any kind. If he even looks at pasta the wrong way, well…poopy happens.

She dramatically bursts through the door. “Can you clean it up? It smells yucky.” She grabs her nose and sticks out her tongue in disgust. I can’t help but laugh at her cuteness.

“Where’s Dad?  I’m kind of busy.” AKA trying to pee in peace.

“Momma!” my toddler stumbles in behind her like a drunk pirate with one peg leg. Maybe it’s the missing shoe? “Momma, ode me!” She reaches her pudgy hands up, opening and closing her tiny fists over and over. “Ode me, peese.” I can’t resist pulling her short frame into my lap.

“What happened to your other shoe?” I ask as she burrows her head into my neck.

“She put it in the trashcan!” My oldest laughs. I know if I had a mere thirty seconds, this would all be over.  I could go back to mothering with my yoga pants securely in place.

“You guys, seriously,” I say, leaning over to shut the door. “I really need to pee.”  My oldest starts rummaging wildly for something under the sink.

“What are you looking for under there?” I ask her.

“Air freshener.  For the poopy smell.” She pulls out some apple cinnamon spray and smiles victoriously.

My husband knocks only once before swinging the door wide open. Sven and Roxy (the other dog) are both with him. Now the whole damn family is hanging out in the first-floor half-bath.

“I gotta go, babe. I’m running late for work.” He leans over to kiss me and the girls.

“Do you realize the whole family is in the bathroom right now?” I ask him. He turns to observe and slowly nods his head yes.

“That’s life with kids, Danielle.”

“Okay,” I say.  I finally accept the fact that we’re having a full blown family meeting in the bathroom. “But what about Sven’s poop?”

“Taken care of,” he responds, dragging both dogs out of the bathroom. “Come on guys. Let Mommy go potty.”

“Love you babe,” I say, returning my youngest to the floor in front of me.

“Love you, too.” he says, shutting the door. Finally I can pee. The door opens and my husband reappears. “One more thing,” he says.  “I found a shoe in the trashcan.”

“Choo!” my youngest shouts. “Choo on!”

***

Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could have two minutes of silence to go to the bathroom without being bothered, or to sit and simply collect my thoughts ALONE. Who doesn’t want that? But I also accept the fact that it won’t happen. At least for a long, long, long time. And I’m okay with that. There are too many active gears turning in our family machine and if I lock the door there’s always the chance that the house will burn to the ground with me on the loo. Plus, it’s nice knowing that I’m needed so incredibly much that I can barely walk out of the room without shit hitting something.  And it’s also nice to know I can count on my husband for the dirty work (literally).

So for now I’ll just continue going with an open door policy, looking forward to the day I will finally be able to pee in peace, but knowing that even without my two minutes of silence, things are still pretty great.

Photo Courtesy of David Cohen

Journey to a Magical Place

I watched my daughter, young and slender with a head full of short blond waves, staring out the kitchen window at the falling rain.  I could see the boredom in her blue-green eyes, reflected against the window pane and my heart ached.  La Nina left its dingy mark on my tiny town for nearly thirty days, making her toys begin to fade from bright colors to pastels.  Her happy dolls were now depressed.  Her Legos preferred to be in a puddle, rather than built into magnificent structures.

I walked over to my daughter and gently placed my hand on hers.  She looked up to me and smiled brightly.

“Hey, Momma.  Whatcha doin’?”

“Hey, Sweetie.  I was actually just thinking that we need a little adventure.  What do you think?”  Her smile spread even farther, reaching her ears.

“What kind of adventure?” She raised up onto the very top of her tippy-toes, getting as tall as she could manage.

“Well…” I said, thinking for a moment, “I think we should go on a surprise journey to a truly magical place.”  She clasped her hands in front of her freckled face and jumped in excitement.

“Let’s do it!”

We quickly loaded into the van, trying to stay dry by running between the drops.  Our seatbelts clicked as we harnessed ourselves in securely, ready to embark on our rainy-day excursion.

“So where are we going, Momma?”

“Well, let’s see,” I looked at her eager face in the rearview, “the place we are going can set you free from reality, like leaving this rainy day behind.  You can let your ideas can run wild, taking whatever shape your mind will allow.  You can visit far away cities, countries, or even planets.  Then, magically, it can bring you back to Earth when you’ve been traveling in the cosmic, dark blue space for far too long.  It can help you learn to dance, cook, and knit.  It can offer you new and magnificent ideas as well as ones you’ve heard time and again.”

“Tell me more!”

“Okay, sure.  The place we are going brings hope and love in times of depression.  It gives us power at our weakest hour and supports us when we think we’ve got no one on our side.  At this place, you can be a superhero, a doctor, a racecar driver or maybe even a rock star! It’s a splendid place of fairytale, a marvelous place of modernity and a noble place of history.”

As we pull into the cement slab parking lot and look up at the building made simply of red brick and grey mortar, I am reminded of many days spent at a place like this, as a kid.

“The library!”  Excitement spilled over each syllable as my daughter kicked her feet in delight.  “Yay!”

As a child, I loved going to the library with my mom.  It was an old building made of stone, reminiscent of a castle or old church with cathedral ceilings and oversized arched windows filled with stained glass.  Inside was quiet and smelled of forgotten paper, pinched together between bindings, and filled with the promise of joy.  It was my favorite place; I always chose to borrow books from series like Baby Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High, or anything R.L. Stine (to this day, I love a good thriller).

This library was much newer, round in shape and filled with maple wood trim, but still it had that same papery smell I remembered.  I could envision my mom picking and choosing her newest novel from the recent returns, right by the librarian.  She liked to find gems there.  I could hear the beep of the beige boxy computer as it checked out each book to a new renter, eager to learn something new, or dig into an old favorite.

I brought my eyes back to my kid, today, now rummaging through the hard-bound children’s section. Taking her time, she read titles and carefully decided on several that she liked.   She walked through the aisles of paperbound treasures filled with bedtime stories, yet to be read, and lightly touched a few familiar titles.  Slowly, she gathered even more books to borrow.

By the end, her chosen stack of Star Wars and princess themed books almost reached her eyes, which were gleaming with excitement.  My daughter walked up, plopped her stack of books onto the check-out counter, and offered me her biggest grin.  The trip to the library had turned her undeniable boredom into an opportunity for exploration.  I patted her gently on the head, hoping that one day she’d remember the papery smell, the beep at the check-out counter and the feeling of time spent with me on our journey to this magical place.

“Let’s go, Momma!” she said excitedly.  “I have some adventures to begin!”

Photo Courtesy of Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Funky Little Funk

Usually my daughter and I have great days.   We play,  laugh,  learn,  cuddle and just have good fun.  Other days we almost have all out war. 

She misbehaves.  I yell.  She misbehaves more.  I yell louder.   We both work eachother up because we are SO alike.  Its a vicious cycle…

My husband,  a very wise man,  calls it our “funk. ”  he usually has to mediate when we have these bad days – it’s sad.

What’s sadder is that I know that these days are totally avoidable and correctable. 

If I could just realize when our funk is coming,  then I could just stop what I’m doing and hug her.  I could just drop everything and give her some extra cuddles.  I could just play with the ponies or the dollies a little longer.  I could just ignore whatever I have to do and pay attention to her, because she’s more important than anything else.

But the problem is that I don’t notice the warning signs until we are already knee – deep in rice patties.   I’m yelling, she’s misbehaving and the dog is hiding under the covers,  afraid of what might happen next.  At that point it’s hard to recover.

I know when we have these days that the bad behavior from her and quick temper from me stems directly from the fact that I have too much going on and she wants my attention. 

It’s that simple. 

Some days I need to slow down and cuddle more.  But how do I notice?  What am I missing?