Advice from the Elder Stateswoman

July 25, 2011

Could she really ever have been this young?

My neighborhood fills itself constantly with new babies.  Brand new mothers are everywhere, tiny bundles strapped to their chests, baby bumps still bulgy.   I saw one mother today with two children.  She wore one baby close in a sling.  Her older daughter, who couldn’t have been more than two, wore a matching sling with a babydoll inside. People kept stopping her on the street to comment on how cute they all were.  Miserably pregnant women waddle in the unbearable heat between the food coop to yoga to the adorable used-maternity-clothing stores on 5th avenue.

There were no babydoll slings or adorable used-maternity-clothing stores here when I was pregnant.  I borrowed functionally ugly maternity jeans, or had to go to Manhattan to get clothing that would fit.  Back then, preggers moms could choose only from godawful tents and practical work-wear.

We also had to walk miles uphill to school, both ways, in the snow, even when it was hot.

I look around in wonder at all this fertility, and find myself in a vastly new relationship to it all.  The other side of it, I guess.  While a few years ago, as the mother of toddlers and little girls, I was still embroiled in the anxious thick of child-rearing, I’m feeling these days like an accidental elder stateswoman.

And awfully, awfully lucky.  Given how little I ever understood of what I was doing,  How did these children ever come to be?

I am even feeling confident as a mother these days.  Seriously.  Confident. I can’t imagine ever saying this in the past.

The girls still roll their eyes, argue with with me about homework, forget their lunches. I have to raise my voice to get them to do anything at all on any sort of schedule.  Yet they also are becoming remarkably poised, beautiful, and self-sufficient people. People I would choose to love even if I hadn’t borne them, then yelled at them every night for a decade to get them to go to sleep.

They are nearly as tall as I am, and vastly more interested in babysitting than in toys.  Get this: My oldest baby actually has a job taking care of another person’s baby.

My youngest sorted all of her books yesterday and made a big pile of all the ones with pictures.

“We won’t need these anymore,” she said, and my heart nearly broke in two.  These books were the last of the really good ones — Make Way for Ducklings and When Marion Sang and Mrs. Mack. I could deal with Grace passing them to Abigail, but I think I believed Abigail would keep them forever.  I recovered only when I realized that she was making room for all the new books she wanted to read. She was putting away her childhood things.

I have always loved, protected, and cared for my girls.  But now that they are in this new phase, I do my job only when I am also teaching them how to love, protect, and care for themselves, and other people.  Since I have always been more of a teacher than a caretaker, this new role is working better for all of us. I swear that they are growing inches as I watch.

And my place has shifted.  I now am the moon to each girl, glowing in the bright light of these two very different suns.

This makes me feel very wise.  Of course, it could just be hubris, and I’m merely old.

Today I met a young woman in her seventh month of pregnancy.  I’m not sure why, but she admitted to me, almost immediately, “I’m just so nervous because I have no idea what I am doing.”  I heard a previous version of myself in her words, and launched into my usual speech about how she needs to be gentle and generous — with herself.  As gentle and generous as she would be with anyone she cared about who was launching into something so new and impossibly hard.

“You will figure it out,” I told her.  “But it’s nothing like school, or work, or anything else you’ve mastered in your life.  The nature of parenting is its unpredictability.  Everything is worse than you expected, unless its vastly better.  But you can’t expect to know before it happens.  That whole “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” book?  It tells you only half the truth.  The other half is that you can never know what to expect.”

I can’t quite remember anybody writing that book, or giving me that advice when I too was so fat and hot thirteen years ago.

Of course, if they had, I never would have listened anyway. I hated most books about pregnancy and child rearing, and the lessons I have now for my younger self would not easily transfer. When I think about what I wish I knew then, I imagine speaking across the biggest gulf I have ever crossed — that between the woman I was before I became a mother, and the woman I have become in the last thirteen years.

“Your life is about to change,” I told her. “And this new part will be different, unlike anything you tried before.  You won’t ever get it as right as you’d like.”

I lowered my voice as I told her the crucial bit that I think I may only have figured out about five minutes ago.  “And that uncertainty you feel now? It is only going to get bigger.  But learning truly to accept uncertainty — without giving up — is going to be the foundation on which you and your child will stand, and be OK together.”

In the moment at least, this lovely woman seemed to be listening.  She didn’t look terrified exactly, despite the fact that I was telling her the unvarnished truth.  I didn’t know her at all, but as I was spoke to her, she certainly seemed to be paying attention.  Her unlined face was right in front of me, her eyes trusting and eager for somebody to tell her what the road was like ahead.

I was speaking to her, but I was also speaking into her face as though it were a mirror.

Could I ever really have been that young?

I was talking to her, but also telling this truth to the part of myself who is only just beginning to grasp it now:

“You think you can’t. You have no idea how you will.  And then you do.  Only then can you look back and see.”

Lindsey July 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Tears … absolutely, yes. I still feel the ache for those early baby and toddler days, still feel a certain pull, even though I know I don’t want to be back there. But I also recognize both the wisdom of what you said to that woman and the fact that I wouldn’t really have heard it either. I suspect that, for me at least, the power of the lessons I’ve learned as a mother are precisely because I had to learn them experientially (sp?) – my planning mind couldn’t just sort it out and then follow the plan. I didn’t know until I knew – and one thing I know is how little I know. Does that make sense? It’s all a riddle anyway, isn’t it? Or a Zen koan. xox

Launa July 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

The Zen koan I’m wondering about right now: what will I wish, ten years in the future, that I knew now? I keep hanging on to the new phases as though they will help me with what’s next — but mostly all I know is how to do what I just did.

(Thus the extravagantly ironic title of this post.)

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