Windows

December 14,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I held a 6-month old baby this past weekend--only for about 20 minutes, while the baby's mother had the chance to fix herself a plate of food. We were at a birthday party for a friend.  Before I got my hands on that little guy, he had been rolling around on the floor, cooing and gurgling and I was transfixed, because he reminded me so much of L. when he was that age. It was strange to have that small window back into the past unexpectedly opened, and strange and fun to hold a baby that age again. He was a little fussy and I took him over to the window and was surprised, again, to find that my body still remembered that swaying dance I used to do with my own babies, that rhythmic side-to-side and pat-pat on the baby’s back that once used to be so intuitive, such a constant. I still remember one of the first times I headed back to school/work after L. was born. Scott was home with him and I stood outside the campus library, waiting for the school shuttle. As I waited, I realized suddenly that I was swaying a little, even though I didn’t have a baby in my arms. I felt self-conscious and exposed all of a sudden, and I couldn’t wait to get on that shuttle, and fill my arms again with L., to give my body’s movements a purpose.

Holding the baby this weekend filled me with a strange flood of longing, longing I haven’t felt in years. What would it be like, I wondered, to have another one? To go down that road again, to fill my arms with another baby? To have the chance to do that side-to-side, pat-pat on the back dance again?

It was just a trying-on-for-size train of thought, though.

While I was still entertaining myself with the idea of revisiting life with a small child, I sat down to eat a plate of fruit, and the baby’s mother sat down in a chair across from me to feed the baby. He had turned wriggly and discontent, and squirmed and spat the pureed plums and I noticed that the mom’s gray shirt, once so clean and put-together looking, was covered in drool and splotches of plum. He fussed and arched his back and all the open arms (including mine, I'm sorry to say) that had so readily vied to hold him previously, when he was cooing and gurgling and happy, were suddenly very busy. The mother was getting irritated, and her other child, a toddler and all-boy at age two, picked this time to demand this and that and the mother snapped at him and at once, I could see, felt overcome with terrible guilt. She suddenly looked so tired, and frayed about the edges, and I wanted to help her; I recognized myself in her, too, and another window opened up into the past. I often look back nostalgically on my children’s babyhoods, but I can still safely say that those infant days, those months in that first year, were my least favorite part of it all. Sleep deprivation and worry and mental fatigue did not bring out the best in me; I didn’t enjoy feeling like every part of myself had been parceled out to meet someone’s needs around the clock. But when my kids got older, and closer to the end of that first year, I was completely charmed by their little personalities, their first words, those earnest attempts to express themselves to all the world.

When we left the party, I was done trying it all on for size; my kids raced along the driveway in front of us and a whirl of wind kicked up a terrific burst of leaves. I was sleepy, and content-feeling inside and it was good to imagine the evening ahead of us: reading to T. and tucking her into bed, giving L. the "lights out" warning at 9:15, making myself a cup of tea that I would enjoy on the couch later, while Scott and I watched a movie. It was strange to think these had all been once almost impossible things, only five or six years ago, or ten years ago, even. Now they were the new normal. Parenthood hasn't suddenly become easy and challenge-free. In many ways it's become more difficult and painful and very scary, too. But I feel a sense of peace about myself as a mother, a peace I had to grow into, a peace I know I didn't have all those years ago when I was that new frayed-around-the-edges mother, too.