Here’s an old post from the archives as part of my Recycled Series. I dedicate this to both of my sister-in-laws – one who has recently welcomed a baby into her arms (whom I had the joy of spending a lot of time with on Monday) and to another who is on the eve of new motherhood and also a cousin of mine who recently had her first baby. I wrote this when Mary Elizabeth was just a little nugget.
Recently, I had the rare opportunity to go to the grocery store toting only the baby. She was a happy, wiggly little thing, and I quite enjoyed our visit as well as her many admirers.
Typically, I’m in such a rush that I avoid onlookers. I’m not overtly rude, but I don’t stop to make idle chitchat either. My goal is to take care of my grocery list before one of my kids melts down or surreptitiously takes shampoo off a shelf, pulls it into the car she’s cruising along in at the front of the cart, and starts smearing it all over her body (thinking it’s lotion of course), and isn’t caught in the act until a confused Mom smells mango, even though that type of fruit wasn’t on her list (yes, this is a true story. I won’t fully reveal the guilty party, but she often wears pigtails and exclaims, “I two!”).
But today was different. I had only one child with me. This was easy street.
During our visit we were stopped by the grocery paparazzi several times and received the following comments:
“She’s a big one for almost 4 months!”
“She’s so small for almost 4 months, isn’t she?”
See how fickle the paparazzi can be. You’re too fat one minute and a weak waif the next!
“Well, you’ve got an angel there.”
“Oh, look at that funny hair.”
I swear, I combed it. It has a mind of its own.
“He’s so cute. Errr…I mean, she. Sorry.”
No worries. Apology accepted.
“Is that comfortable for you to have her attached to you like that?”
Yes. Very much so.
Now in the olden days – as in when I was a newbie mom with just one child in my care – I admittedly would have fret over some of these comments.
In fact, I vividly remember when my husband and I ventured out to a salad buffet-type of restaurant with Madeline when she was around the same age as M.E. is now, and an older man and his wife stopped to ooooo and ahhhhhh over our little brawny bundle.
“Wow! He’s gonna be a linebacker. How much did he weigh when he was born?” the man asked, smiling.
I looked at my daughter’s pink and yellow outfit and then back at the grinning and obviously nearsighted man. “She weighed 6 pounds and 15 ounces.”
“She? My goodness. What are you feeding her?” the man asked, still smiling.
“My milk,” I replied, not smiling at all.
“She’s beautiful,” his wife added, probably noting my annoyance with my firstborn daughter being mistaken for a beefy linebacker.
This was not an isolated incident. Everyone use to comment on how chunky Madeline was. I know now I should have been proud of those rolls and extra dimples (they were of my own making and made for a healthy, happy baby, after all). But I used to worry my daughter was destined to a future in the NFL and that it would be all my fault for nursing her too much too often.
Fast-forward four years, and my daughter is tall and slender. But what if she’d stayed on the roly-poly side? What difference? Why was I so hung up on what strangers had to say about my baby?
I wish I’d had the confidence I have now. To appreciate the fact that I was feeding my baby somehow, someway with my body and that she was perfect just the way she was.
While I was a fairly laid-back first-time mom in many aspects (I didn’t constantly check to make sure my infant was breathing, for example, and I nixed the whole idea of having a perfect nursery, didn’t bother to use a Diaper Genie, and didn’t put a call into the pediatrician with a question until she was 15 months), the most innocuous comments could occasionally drive me to collapse into a heap of self-doubt. Was I nursing her enough? Too little? Was I, by subscribing to what experts called “attachment parenting” but what just felt natural to my child and me, setting my child up to be a leech who would be rooted to me like a barnacle for the rest of her life?
How tiresome it must have been to spend so many of my waking hours fretting over others’ unsolicited (and probably well-meaning) commentary about parenting!
And what a blessing it is now, that as more of a seasoned mom (although I realize more than ever with three completely different, tiny human beings who are constantly growing and changing under my care that I’ll ever have this whole parenting thing figured out), to not be crippled by the relentless foray of unsought pearls of parental wisdom tossed my direction at every aisle in one random grocery store visit.
Yes, M.E. is a chunky love. Is she too big or too little for four months? We’ll see at her well-child visit in a two weeks. Honestly, I don’t care what the growth charts say. She started out small, and now she comes in chunk-style – just the way I like my babies. Of course, Rae was on the small side at this age, and she was perfect, too. (Yes, I’m biased. I’m their mother. I’m supposed to be.)
I feed M.E. when she’s hungry, when she begins to stir in the night, when she cries during the day, or when she just wants to be close to me. I take note of her rolls, and I pump my fist in the air in triumph. I have a healthy baby, with strong limbs, who is growing each and every day! I “wear” her as I go about the daily grind. She’s a lovely accessory, and yes, it is quite comfortable to keep her so close to me. She sleeps close by and I sometimes hear her soft sighs and marvel at the wonder of her. I soak up her smiles and watch as her cheeks move in involuntary sucks long after she’s ceased nursing and is sleeping, curled into me. I don’t really care what others think or say about my baby. She is tiny for four months. She is big for four months. Perhaps she’s an androgynous sprite with hair that defies gravity to the casual onlooker. And I wholeheartedly agree with the “experts” that she’s an angel attached to me.
This post is not an endorsement of any particular type of parenting. If you’re new to my blog or are just wondering why my baby appeared to be “attached” to me as I foraged for food for my family at the grocery store, attachment parenting, or some semblance of it is the ideal I strive for, but I’ve found some of its principles – which seem to change anyway – are not always a constant reality in the trenches.
This is, on the other hand, an endorsement of mom intuition – a gift I believe all women-turned-moms possess. Use it, and use it wisely.
This one’s for all the new moms who – after a trip to the grocery store or anywhere out in public (or even during a click-by on some random new parent discussion board where a plethora of welcome and sometimes not-so-welcome advice awaits) – might find themselves lying awake in bed at night reciting an inner monologue of self-doubt about their mothering. Silence the inner critic. Once you become a parent, it is a waste of precious energy to seek popular acclaim from the experts and all those who make their public opinions known. Parenting gurus are an opinionated lot, and each has his or her own idea of the right way to parent. If you try to listen to everyone, you’ll end up with confused kids and no firm parenting principles of your own.
Please ignore the sweet old lady in aisle 7 who tells you your baby is too big. Ignore the cashier who says your baby is awfully small. Ignore comment number 7 on the discussion board that says the only way to be a good mom is to do this or to not do that. Ignore the friend who advises you to let your baby “cry it out” if every ounce of your maternal being is saying it doesn’t feel right. Tune out the finger-wagging advice that tells you you’re spoiling your baby by keeping him close to you all day. Be the mother you want to be. Better yet, be the mom you feel called to be. Smile politely at all of your baby’s admirers (they really do mean well), and snuggle up with your little one. Then repeat after me: Your baby is fine, and so are you.
Mother knows best, and you – not the woman who tickles your baby’s toes in the produce section – are your child’s mother. Be secure in your role. Because your baby doesn’t feel more secure in anyone’s arms but your own.
In the aftermath of what seemed like a life-shattering breakup at the time, I would belt out Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” I still have the song on my very eclectic workout playlist, and the other day I found myself shouting the lyrics and building up the tenacity to deal with another man in my life. This one weighs roughly 40 pounds and he’s not breaking my heart, but he breaks plenty of other things: Window blinds, flower pots, wire whisks from the kitchen (he likes to bend anything that is the least bit malleable), big chunks of my hair and his sisters’ hair off the scalp when in the throes of a titanic tantrum, toys, windshields (he did this with his head and was not injured in the least – thank God! Don’t ask. The car was parked in the driveway lest you think he was cruising around without a carseat in the front), etc., etc.
I’m supposed to be working on his birthday letter. Our little bruiser recently turned 3, but I’m spending too much time avoiding unidentifiable flying objects he has hurled in my direction to work on anything productive, and I’m afraid the letter will turn into a collection of grievances against the poor guy. I keep telling myself, “This too shall pass.” This mantra has always helped me get through rough parenting patches, but right about now, I find myself editing the phrase and gritting my teeth while thinking something like this: “This sure as heck better pass soon before I have a nervous breakdown or do something I’ll regret.”
Of course, there are tender moments when my sweet, little man cuddles close, but even his kisses and hugs are fueled with boy-power. I’ve had to remonstrate with him repeatedly to not hang on my neck when he hugs me because he’s pulled so hard, I’ve felt sharp jabs of pain.
We recently went to the beach to see my husband’s grandparents, and Thomas just kept asking, “When are we going to go home? Tomorrow?” He clearly wasn’t digging the change of scenery. He refused to nap, was sweaty with heat and exhaustion, and cried when sand got in his shoes and cried if we took his shoes off. He screamed when he was happy, and he screamed when he was sad. Dealing with his mercurial moods was completely exhausting.
Upon our return, a friend of mine first asked him, “What did you do at the beach, Thomas?”
“I got crabs!” he shouted.
The crustacean kind, of course.
After we all had a good laugh, I told her he had been ready to come home after a day away, so she queried, “Thomas, do you like the beach or home better?”
“Home!” he shouted.
My little boy craves routine and is definitely a homebody. When I take him to library storytime, he’s as still as can be and clings to my lap like a barnacle. But at home, he turns into the Incredible Hulk and plows from room to room leaving destruction or teary, melodramatic sisters in his wake.
My normal discipline strategies aren’t working, probably because I am so exasperated and tired from it all that I am not very consistent. The boy who once fell asleep so easily so long as I was beside him both at bedtime and for naps now pinches my nose and throws books around the room when I try to settle him down. The other day I was desperate for him to nap, so I finally held the door shut while he threw every possible toy at the door and screamed for 30 minutes straight. One day recently I actually did get him to sleep. It only took me two hours of cajoling him and putting him back into his bed. By the time he fell asleep, it was nearly time for me to pick up his sisters, and I was too worn out to get anything done, so I sat on the couch and cried.
It’s a terrible combination: A tired mama and an even more tired toddler.
Yes, this little man in my life is making me cry and cling to Gloria Gaynor’s words: “It took all the strength I had just not to fall apart.”
The saving grace is that he is the difficult one now. Madeline (my almost 10-year-old) is at that golden age where she’s helpful (for the most part, although her room looks like a disaster zone) and loves to be in my company. Rachel (7) and Mary E. (5) are getting along much better than they have in the past. Last year Thomas was easy, but I was having difficulties and stressing out over another child. God really doesn’t give me more than I can handle. Sometimes it just feels like it, but I’ve rarely been in a place where all my children were going through challenging developmental stages.
And I know that it is now – when books like When Your Child Drives You Crazy clutter my nightstand – that the most growth is going to happen within me.
Moms, don’t be (too) weary if you’re traveling down a difficult path right now in your parenting journey. Don’t wonder if you’re the only one who finds a newborn baby, a toddler, a preschooler, a 6-year-old, a tween, a teenager, a young adult, a grown child, a special-needs child, a girl, a boy, whatever difficult to mother. Because you’re not the only one. Wherever you’re at and whatever you’ve been given right now is probably the hardest for you. Maybe that’s the point. What would be easy for you may not be the best for you.
If God is trying to prune us and sanctify us through the vocation of parenthood, then it makes sense that He gives us just the kind of children we need – the kind who will push our buttons and throw us down to our knees and force us to realize that we cannot, absolutely cannot, do this on our own. We need good girlfriends we can vent to. We need spouses or other loved ones to lean on. We need community. We need to take care of ourselves to better take care of those entrusted to us. And we need faith. Faith is what makes our weakness – whether it’s spiritual, physical, or emotional – stronger. We have to have faith that this will pass, that we will survive.
Sometimes we have to simply show up – and to stay put once we’ve arrived even if every part of us is screaming to just go, escape, get the heck out of there before you or your child really loses it.
These are the kind of things I have to tell myself day after day right now as I try to figure out this rambunctious, toddler boy thing out.
I openly admit that I don’t have it all together. I have done things I regret. I haven’t always been gentle and firm. I’ve given up on God many times.
There are moments when I feel like my toddler is winning, but then I remind myself this isn’t a war. This isn’t about who is right or the most stubborn or the most in control. It is about love – the kind that sometimes really, really hurts to give. No, it’s not a war, but there is fighting. I have to keep on fighting to give of myself, to trust that a child who has started to pull our dog’s tail is not destined for juvenile delinquency. I have to fight to forgive myself and my boy when we reveal our raw humanness. At some point or another, we are all scared and tired moms who keep fighting. We are burnt out moms who are overwhelmed by keeping up with laundry and wayward tots or teens all day long, but we keep fighting and giving.
A mother doesn’t have superhero powers or even super patience. A mother is just a person – a woman like you or me – but she does super-amazing things. She is the woman with people in her care whom she loves and sometimes wonders how she loves them because they are driving her absolutely crazy. Yet, she still does love them. She gives, she fights, prays, and works. She shows up day after day for what sometimes can feel like a thankless or even pointless job. And it’s in this showing up minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day that just may make a mother a saint.
It took all the strength I had
not to fall apart
In my spice cabinet, there resides a simple tin shaker emblazoned with a big red “C” (Nail polish color: Fire Engine Red). The container is filled with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, and I use it to occasionally add a dash of sweetness to my children’s apple slices, applesauce, oatmeal, or buttery toast.
The shaker is just like the one my grandfather – known as Papa – used to have in his kitchen. And so every time I see it stashed in my cabinet packed in with the clear cylinders of dried basil, crushed ginger, and cumin, I’m reminded of my papa, a man who believed food and serving it to others was the chief nourishment of life itself.
Growing up, my family made the trek up to my grandparents’ home in Illinois from Georgia each year. There we celebrated with family, fun, Mass, and food. Lots of it. From the moment you slipped out of bed you were well-fed. Papa, in the fashion of a professional short-order cook, would whip up breakfast for a gaggle of hungry kids and their parents. We’d all gather around a long picnic table covered with a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth. Here, we laughed and waited for Papa to feed us mouths poised like a bunch of hungry, helpless baby birds. Then we’d eat, and it was love at first bite. We’d applaud his culinary brilliance and often ask for seconds. He’d happily oblige.
Papa was a dutiful chef who took personal orders – especially at the breakfast table. My mom might request a poached egg. Dad might order white rice swimming in butter and dusted with cinnamon-sugar from the very tin I modeled my own after. But the grandkids – we all wanted Papa’s famous cinnamon toast. Papa somehow always managed to toast the bread to perfection. I’ve never had much luck with toasters – the bread always comes out brittle or not toasted at all. But Papa’s bread turned a slight golden brown, and he spread butter evenly across its warm, crispy surface. Then he sprinkled the perfect amount of cinnamon-sugar mixture over the bread so that you tasted the creamed sweetness with each bite but never encountered any sugary clumps. I’d chomp into it and taste his genius and wonder how a man who was legally blind – Papa suffered from macular degeneration – could possibly know how to add just the right amount of butter and cinnamon-sugar to make the best cinnamon toast my taste buds had ever encountered. In between bites, I’d take swigs of cold milk. It was a sublime breakfast.
My grandparents eventually left Illinois and joined the flocks of snowbirds and moved to Florida. We no longer had the big table to gather at, but food remained the highlight of our visits.
When my firstborn was only a few months old, my husband, our baby, and I went to visit my grandparents. When I woke up in the early morning to the sound of the surf dancing across the sand below, I crept into the kitchen. Papa, also an early riser, was there to greet me – and to serve me as well.
“What would you like for breakfast?” he asked.
I wasn’t really hungry yet but to turn him down felt like rejecting his love.
Before I could answer, he asked his grown granddaughter if she wanted some eggs. Almost shyly, I asked if he could instead make his cinnamon toast. He grinned, clapped his hands, and said, “You bet!” Then he pulled out his token sugar-cinnamon tin can.
My papa had always been big (he loved to make and eat food), but old age was taking its toll on him. This larger-than-life man was shrinking before my eyes and as I watched veined, wrinkled hands at work in the kitchen, I knew there might not be too many more breakfasts of Papa’s cinnamon toast to savor.
I’m not always so prescient, but that was the last time I tasted Papa’s cinnamon toast. His body would shut down and he would die not long after.
But Papa left a legacy behind. An aunt of mine compiled his favorite recipes – handwritten in his writing in big letters his weak eyes could decipher – and made copies for all of us. Today Papa’s love lives on in drops of his signature orange sauce, the deep flavor of his vichyssoise, and in the simplicity of old standbys like cinnamon toast and buttery white rice served every Christmas morning.
With America’s obesity epidemic and the myriad health problems an excess of eating brings, to say that food is love has become somewhat taboo. But my papa taught me that food is indeed more than just something you make or eat. It’s an act of love to both graciously receive well-prepared food as well as to make it. There is something sacrificial in dishes prepared by our hands, dough kneaded, risotto stirred to the perfect consistency, and homemade chocolate chip cookies gooey hot out of the oven served with a side of love to a hungry child or spouse.
Papa nourished the ones he loved with meals. He understood that we are meant to break bread together. For Papa, the art of celebrating food and family was more than tradition – it was a way of life. Just like the Eucharist is to the Church family. We feast, and we receive the love that is God in our hearts. We are nourished. We want for nothing. Food is most definitely sometimes love. It goes down so easily.
In my own kitchen, when preparing a meal starts to feel more like a burden than a labor of love, when chopping my toddler’s food into minuscule, choke-proof chunks is tedium rather than an adventure in the culinary craft, I think of my papa who trained me well in the art of serving food and love on one platter. Like holy relics, the cinnamon-sugar shaker or the notebook of his favorite recipes scrawled on paper as jaundiced and thin as pages of parchment come out of their hiding places. And as I stir, chop, and taste test, I’m reminded that in this kitchen, I’m don’t only fill stomachs, I fill hearts – just as my papa showed his love for all of us as we gathered around his kitchen table. Just as Christ offers us the Bread of Life, in serving my family meal after meal, in gathering them together, in preparing and sharing an extra meal for a friend who has just had a baby or is just having a hard time, I am nourishing souls and offering the taste of God’s goodness in the gift of wholesome and delicious love.