Wednesday, June 1, 2011
This, I think, makes me strange. Strange to other parents and even to myself. When my daughter was younger, I worried non-stop about her. I still worry about her at 23, despite all my efforts to let go and let be. She seemed perpetually to demand worrying about, to the point where worrying seems intimately entwined with loving her.
At almost-ten-months, Little Bug and his age-mates are starting to do more things: stand up, clap hands, babble, wave, maybe use some signs (for the sign-language inclined parents) or take steps. Among the folks I know, there's a constant checking, a look of worry when their child seems slower than another on these markers. I read a lot about the competitiveness that drives parents of young children (over the edge, the New York Times always seems to say, like in this article.) But mostly what I hear is worry--is this little one I adore going to be okay? Am I doing something wrong that is going to make him or her not be okay?
Worrying about your children, a lot, from developmental milestones to car seats to bike helmets has become part of the American odyssey of parenting. This is relatively new, from I think about the 1980s, when we first passed laws mandated the latter two things. Sometimes I forget this and think Little Bug's grandparents must know how to operate a car seat, but they don't, or have only learned from their grandchildren. Jennifer and I grew up in an era more relaxed about accidents and injuries--for better and for worse--with more space to find our own adventures, less supervision, and more opportunities to try things and make mistakes.
Writers as different as Michael Chabon and David Brooks have argued that children lose something in all this worrying. Chabon writes about the closing down of what he calls "the wilderness of childhood," kid-controlled spaces and time, and asks what happens to imagination and adventure when children are chauffeured from one adult-organized event to the next. David Brooks calls this year's graduating class part of "the most supervised generation in American history," and suggests they are not prepared for the wide-open spaces of adult possibility.
So if it is normal for the parents I know, normal for my generation, and normal even for me, why don't I feel that familiar space of worry about Little Bug? I keep turning it over in my mind, feeling for what is absent, the way the tongue finds the space of a missing tooth. One of my theories is that it is just experience. He's my second, and I experienced first-hand the futility of all that worrying the first time around. It took all my time but didn't accomplish much. Alternately, and relatedly: I'm just too old. I can put aside parental worrying and enjoy Little Bug because he is the surprising, unlooked for child of my late forties (all right, I'm a lesbian, he's not exactly an accident. But if you'd asked me 10 or even 5 years ago, I wouldn't have predicted his presence). Somehow, this just makes him a pure gift; whatever he is, is perfect.
On the other hand, I didn't start here. His birth was difficult, and he spent his first 11 days on a respirator, hovering between life and death. We heard a great deal about the possible consequences of the time around birth when he didn't get enough oxygen. I would look at his bright, alert eyes and think someone was definitely home, but especially those first few months, it was hard to tell how much that was true. Each new sign--the ability to hold something, to focus, to nurse, to tune in to us--was reassuring, but never quite enough. Or rather, it reassured me that he could develop that far--but how much further remained an open space of worry.
But somewhere along the line, it feels like it was Bug himself who taught me how to hold the future more lightly. He laughs easily and often, finding joy in everything. This week, the new thing that cracks him up is something akin to conversation--he does something and we reply, or imitate him, and he dissolves into helpless giggles. Last night I was trying to amuse him with "Uh-oh" and the reply of my childhood: "Spaghetti-O." (Yes, Gil, the revolution will not be televised and I get how crassly commercial that is. But it stirred up from the depths of my unconscious and I was trying to entertain a baby in a play yard while I did the dishes, and I wasn't feeling desperately creative.) Little Bug got it right away, and while he can't say "uh-oh" he could say "uh" and I'd say "spaghetti-o" and he would laugh his head off. Or he'd make a sudden loud noise and I'd pretend to jump. Over and over and over, but each time brought peals of laughter.
So he was quick to sit and on the early side for pulling himself up and now cruising around a room. I felt like it was part of his program of reassurance, his effort to calm neurotic fears. Just laugh, mama. I looked away from him in the shopping cart this morning to find something on the shelf and felt someone tickling my belly. Look at me! that gesture meant, but what a gentle way to say it. The more I love him, the more drawn I am into his world. He lives effortlessly in the present, having, we presume, little ability to conceptualize past or future. If my oldest is perenially anxious, a child who feels most loved when there is worry for her, Bug doesn't seem to have a lot of space or use for it. I'm not much worried about him, I think, because he doesn't really allow it.