Join us in bed for a second:
“Morning, Dad.” *clambers in with what feels like six elbows and fourteen knees*
“Did you have any dreams?”
“I had five! Let me tell you about them.”
“So. I was walking in New York–”
“Pause! How do you know about New York? Do you know what New York is? Tell me what New York looks like.”
“It has skyscrapers [ed: ?!] and tall buildings and one tall building with a sharp point on the very top. And I was walking around and it was dark–and I was eighteen so I could be alone–and do you know what I saw on the top of that sharp point on the building?”
“A person! And do you know who the person was?”
“It was mom!”
“On the top of the point! So I went to the building and I looked up at her. And then I started to climb the building, because I had sticky hands and feet. But it was raining so hard, so it was really just my boots and gloves that were sticky.”
“And you know what?”
“I saved her, Dad. I saved her. That was my dream.”
I took Wombat for a flu shot last Wednesday. I remembered that he was dosed with the nasal mist last year, but just in case that wasn’t an option again, I made sure we talked and talked about the shot for a few days in advance, since it had been almost two years since his last immunization stabs and I wanted him to be ready. I told him we all had to get a flue shot not just to keep ourselves from getting sick but to protect Baby Fox, who’s too young to get the shot himself. I told him Dad had already gotten his, and then I waited to get mine so we could do it together.
At the clinic, the nurse asked me if we were going to do a shot or mist for Wombat, and I barely even hesitated before I whispered, “Let’s do the shot.” (Am I the worst?) It’s just that we’d done so much prep and he was all geared up to be brave in service of his little brother, and it felt wrong to then go, “Oh, never mind. Here, let this nice lady spray some stuff up your nose.” (Besides, at that point, I was still unconvinced the mist was the more comfortable option, but then I got my flu shot and my baby-carrying arm ached for two days and my other arm got really tired of all the fist-shaking I did in response, so next year, the mist it is.)
I got my flu shot first, then Wombat sat in my lap to get his, and not only did he barely flinch and not cry at all, his initial reaction was a pleased, “Hm!” and then, to an audience of amused nurses, he declared, “I love flu shots!” (I believe this is not so much evidence of a true affinity for immunizations but standard procedure for a kid who is, like his father, both theatrical and a people pleaser. Then again, the next day, he used his Etch-a-Sketch to create one of those tell-tale right-angle scribbles, which he informed me was a map of a building with lots of rooms, and in every room you get a flu shot! Kind of messed up. Is this how the creators of Saw started out?)
The nurses thought he was a riot and awarded him three stickers. He chose Spider-Man over Cars (mah baby’s all grown up!), and after slapping two of them on right smack in the middle of his belly (okay, not so grown up), he turned and gave me one, for being brave when I got my shot, which I wore sticky-stuck right smack in the middle of my belly all day too.
Something happened in the weeks after Fox was born. I started feeling like a Mom, not just some girl with a baby. I don’t know what changed–that I had two kids, that I got older, that I’d had time to grow into the role, or that Wombat is almost four and is all…persony. Being a mom to an almost-four-year-old is light years away from being a mom to an infant or toddler; four means my kid has gone from being a thing that belongs to me–who is mine–to an individual who takes ownership of me back; I’m not just a mom, I’m his mom. I belong to him too.
Before Fox, Simon worried (out loud) (often) (ANNOYING) that having a second kid would turn us into capital-P Parents. He was afraid we would only do parenty things in parenty ways forever and ever, so help us Ferber. Now, there’s some truth to this–like I said, I now feel like a capital-M Mom instead of just some chick with a kid–but the result of that shift has not been detrimental to my sense of self but, in fact, a huge boost to my confidence. I became a better mother when having two kids instead of one forced me to make them a bigger priority in my life. I became a better mother when I accepted myself more fully as a mother. This time around, I haven’t been afraid to take the baby to the grocery store alone. I’m not afraid to be solely in charge of preschool drop-off and pick-up and lunches and Share Day and co-op hours and making two dozen cream puffs for the Thanksgiving potluck. I flew in an airplane, alone, with a three-year-old and a five-week-old, and it was no biggie. I’ve stopped looking at some parenting tasks in terms of good/bad, fair/unfair, gross/grosser; I just do them because they need to be done.
This all may be standard for a lot of you, but let’s remember, I’m no martyr. For instance, I will never wake up early without feeling my soul scream at the injustice of not getting ten to twelve hours of sleep in a row. I do it, yes, because I have to, but it never, ever, ever fills me with the warm glow of self-sacrifice that some mothers enjoy.
Wombat turns four in a little more than a week. I remember four. I remember the pink dress with the puffy sleeves and pink butterfly buttons my mom made me for my birthday. I remember wearing it with pink Velcro tennis shoes and tube socks with pink stripes, the tops of which are clearly visible in the photo my mom took of me standing in front of my “Leah Is Four!” birthday sign with the front of my dress pulled up over my head because I was being sassy. I remember being four, and I remember my mom when I was four. (Only the most specialest, most beautifullest woman in the world.) Four is where the memories get sticky. Four is where parenting really starts to count.
(We worry a lot about what happens in the early years, but that’s more about us than the kids, right? It’s a blessing, actually, that children begin as babies because that’s a built-in grace period for those of us who need a few years to figure out what the hell we’re doing. (Not that we have it all figured out now, not by a long shot, but you know what I mean.))
When I say this is when “parenting starts to count,” I don’t even mean it the way it sounds. I’m not talking about being on duty to train the kids to behave in restaurants or make sure they respect boundaries; what I’m concentrating on now more than ever before is doing what I can to be sure my sons have good memories of me, of the type of person their mother is. On the one hand, I firmly believe parents should be their children’s parents, not friends, but I also really, really, really want my kids to like me.
Like I said, I think the biggest difference in my perception over the last few months has been this: My relationship with Wombat, age almost-four, is no longer entirely about who he is to me–how he fits into my life–but about who I am to him. My perspective has shifted from being about how our relationship looks from here to how [I imagine] it looks from there, through his eyes. It’s less important how he acts as a character in my story because I suddenly (shockingly!) care more about his story, about what kind of mother he has and what memories he will have of her from his childhood. I am his passenger. This thought came rushing at me fully formed when I picked him up from preschool a few weeks ago and he saw me from the other end of the playground and yelled “Moooooooom!” and dropped what he was doing and flew at me like a rocket in tennis shoes. In that moment, he wasn’t mine, I was his.
I don’t think I’ve lost part of myself to parenthood, I really don’t. If anything, I’d always felt I gained two parts when these two little boys came into my life, when I was me and they were mine. Now that Wombat is growing up and becoming his own person and separating from his parents in the way that all kids eventually should (and probably do over and over, at different stages), you might say I’m losing that part I gained. You might even notice that when Wombat took that part of himself back, a part of me stuck on to that part of him and was carried away. But it’s not true. Here’s what happened: I let my son have himself back, and I also gave him part of myself to keep forever. He was mine, now I am his. This is the way it’s supposed to be.