See that stunningly gorgeous, extremely sticky kid right there? She’s wearing a stained tank top and no pants with skinny legs stuck into new red high top sneakers her daddy picked out for her. I sliced her up a delicious peach as part of her lunch. And you know what that magnificent child did? She shared it with me. She brought over two pieces at a time, running in those little high tops from her tiny table to my spot on the couch, handing me one piece, and devouring the other with a smile. Her eyes lit up every time I said, “Thank you, baby!” She grinned every time I said “mmmmm.” When we finished our slices, she ran back on crazy legs to bring more.
This kid is 2 years old and she knows the secret to life: the best things are only the best if they’re shared. I’m so glad I get to share all my best things with my Best Things.
We haven’t gone to the beach, or anywhere really, which to me is usually the mark of a great summer, but I think I’m actually having one of my best summers ever. Summer is sort of an abstract concept to me, these days, but it really only relates to the weather. My life is no longer measured in semesters. Claire’s developmental preschool is year round. My husband doesn’t get summers off from the ER, despite my never ending disappointment that only students get a summer break. And after getting over my weirdness about planning fun for just Etta and me because of “guilt” about Claire being “left out,” Etta and I have kind of gotten into a little routine.
Mother’s Day’s approach has me thinking a lot about motherhood, both as an abstract concept to be celebrated and as this thing I do all day every day. And now that I’m out of the exhausted haze of infancy and not quite into any toddler terribleness (so far, two is great!), I’m starting to realize that the daily self-discipline of parenting has been better spiritual training for me than any yoga class I’ve ever been to. I like yoga a lot, did it for a long time, and still try to do it in my home when I can, but what I liked best about it was the way it made me feel whole– mind and body unified, deeply in touch with myself and my place in my body and the world, happy to be alive, neither selfish or selfless, but balanced. One of the biggest aspects of it for me was mindfulness, just being present in a moment while at the same time knowing that moment will pass.
As Saturday began, I didn’t think it was going to be a good day. I had made plans to meet some of my friends at the zoo with the girls, and getting the three of us up, dressed, fed, packed, and loaded wasn’t going so well, particularly because Etta seemed to be having some teething-related pain and was screaming her face off. Determined to get out the door and spend some time with friends I love, I gave her some Tylenol and a frozen teether, and got us on our way, practically chugging my coffee.
Then a funny thing happened: a perfect day. It turns out 5 adults, 1 elementary student, and 2 almost-two-year-olds is a good mix for a zoo day. I had help dragging the little red wagon, lifting babies to better vantage points, and entertaining kiddos at lunch. The girls had a big kid to watch and copy. The weather was amazing– sunny and 70s after what seemed for a while to be an interminable, cold winter. And for some reason, despite our screamy start, my children, perhaps because they love the outdoors, people and animals, were the best-behaved toddlers in the whole dang place. They made mostly-appropriate animal sounds when they saw elephants, tigers, lions, and monkeys. They may have called the penguins fish, but they seemed to really enjoy feeding time. And they rode in the wagon and were hoisted around by people who weren’t their parents with nothing but smiles and giggles. Only at the very end of the route through the zoo (we saw everything but the reptile house, which we all agreed could be skipped due to creepy) did anyone get the least bit tearful, and as we were an hour past naptime, it seemed completely reasonable.
We came home and Etta went down instantly and soundly for a nap. Claire needed some snuggles, so I made the real sacrifice of lying down with her in a cool, dark room, dozing and smelling her hair for two hours. We all woke up just as their daddy got home from work, and we cuddled in the den and watched Tinkerbell as we came out of our nap trances. We all spent the rest of the afternoon outside, soaking up some much-needed sunshine, and ended the day with more snuggles and some storytime. As I put Claire down to sleep, I was practically tearful with love for my amazing little family.
Toddlers can be difficult, no doubt. There are lots of big emotions crammed into tiny bodies. They don’t quite speak English, which causes a lot of confusion on both sides. They don’t always understand why they can’t have their way/that thing they want, and they sometimes throw really impressive fits. But oh, once in a while, just often enough to keep me going, they have utterly magical days. I am so very thankful Saturday was one of them.
Last night I was reading a New York Times profile of Megan Rapinoe, a soccer star I really admire. The piece mentioned that she has a twin sister, and went out of it’s way to let readers know that her sister is “older by 11 minutes.” Cue the sound of a record scratching in my mind.
I have twin daughters. People love to ask us questions in public, and one of their favorites is “Which one is older?”
Let me stop right here. Say you meet someone. Say it comes up that you were both born on March 28. Would you ask that stranger what precise hour and minute he or she was born? Or would you just say, “Wow, we have the same birthday! We’re the same age!”
I think people ask this question because, like most of our first-meeting questions, we’re trying to “place” people and figure them out. Asking about birth order lets us know which one is supposed to be the bossy older sibling, and which one is supposed to be the attention-seeking youngest. People even seem to believe that the “older” twin should also be the bigger one, as if the 6 lb. size difference that currently exists between Etta and Claire could be attributed to a head start gained by a few extra minutes out in the world. These things are stereotypes at best, and they’re simply not useful in the case of twins, and, I believe, can be harmful. It attempts to impose a hierarchy where none exists.
I have heard about “older” twins lording it over younger twins, and about parents who truly treat their twins as if there is some sort of inborn difference that results from what is essentially the luck of the draw. Wherever an egg implants in the uterus, the twin closest to the “exit” is born first. And in the case of a c-section, isn’t it just whom the surgeon grabs first?
In a society that loves to label people and to lump twins together, I want my girls to feel loved and supported for the individuals they are, not shoehorned into some sort of role, be it birth order, or gender, or religion, or whatever. I don’t want strangers deciding that one is “the bossy one” because she’s “older” or something. I’m even thinking I may just keep mum on the whole thing if asked. Because really, from the moment of conception, their cells have been dividing the same. The entire time I was pregnant, they were the same gestational age. They still are. Who was first pulled out into the sterile brightness of the operating room really doesn’t matter much to me.
See, when we got our first dog Bessie, we just went to a shelter one day, found a pretty cute pup who seemed playful and friendly, and took her home. There was some puppy chewing of throw pillows and Playstation controllers, but for the most part, she was a freakishly good dog– well behaved, friendly, easy to get along with. Naturally, we thought this was all our doing. We’d go to other people’s houses and encounter unruly dogs who jumped up or begged for food or used the bathroom in the house, and we’d leave thinking to ourselves, what is wrong with them? They’re clearly doing a terrible job as pet parents! We’d think, if only they were as good as we are, they wouldn’t allow that behavior.
Then we got a second dog.
Olive, it turns out, is a vastly different dog, despite our clearly superior dog parenting abilities. In the years we’ve had her, we’ve been completely unable to teach her not to put her paws on us or attempt to climb in our laps or onto the furniture, both places she isn’t allowed. We have had to come to a very shocking conclusion: it’s not that we’re amazing dog owners, we just had a really amazing first dog.
This is a realization I think more first time parents need to come to. It’s a realization we’ve come to yet again as we parent twins who, at every turn, seem determined to remind us that they are very distinct individuals. It started when Claire began sleeping through the night on her own at about 3 months old. Etta still hasn’t mastered that feat. Baby sleep in particular seems to be an area in which everyone fancies themselves an expert. Particularly if they have one kid, the baby equivalent of a Bessie dog, they’ll happily tell you that all you need to do is exactly what they did, and you too will have a baby who sleeps through the night. I hope their next baby is an Olive, every time. Because even though we use the exact same techniques and parenting styles on both of our girls, one sleeps and one doesn’t. We can’t anymore take credit for Claire’s awesome sleeping abilities than we can the blame for Etta’s lack thereof.
The same thing happened with food. Claire took happily to purees quite easily (around 6 months), while Etta has always refused to let us spoon feed her. Several months later, at 10 months, and Etta has only recently decided that while she still hates purees, she’ll willingly chow down on any food she can hold in her own fist. Truly baby-led Baby Led Weaning. I can’t take credit for how either of my girls eats, really, either– they each just do their thing, and I figure out what that thing is through trial and error.
So, you parents of one baby who think you’ve got the whole sleeping and eating figured out through your superior skills? Your kid is probably a Bessie. The next one just might be an Olive.
I’m in my next to last week of classes for my MA program. I’m in the middle of a bunch of academic writing on books like Beloved, Ceremony, and Salvage the Bones, all of which explores the power and ferocity of woman- and mother-hood.
I’m also quietly in the trenches, dealing with a sick baby who’s been running a high fever and barfing so much she had three baths in one day yesterday. It’s a funny thing, the juxtaposition of all of my intellectual thinking about motherhood as some sort of abstract force against the raw power of literal motherhood as this thing that I do, this person I am as I hold a tiny person and just go ahead and let her finish vomiting all over me, just sit there and let it happen, because I know she’s not done yet and attempting to move, or get out of the path of the flow will just exacerbate the mess.
The last lines of Salvage the Bones (which, I swear, this isn’t a spoiler) are “She will know that I have kept watch, that I have fought…She will know that I am a mother.” In this case, I am the she. I am the one who knows. And I am the one who is. In caring for my sick baby, just as I have already many times before in my 8 month stint, just as I will many times to come, I just become unblinkingly confronted with this new fact of my existence. I am a mother. I am the heart that beats the rhythm of comfort under the skin and bones upon which rests the fevered cheek of the one who is flesh of my flesh. What a strange and wonderful privilege it is to provide that resting place. To encircle that tiny, weary person with my arms. To know that I am her mother.
Today, I have 6 month olds. I am still trying to wrap my mind around it, because in my crazy mom way of thinking, it’s like their babyhood is half over.
I’ve also recently come to a new understanding of the babies. I know in the past I’ve said that babies are pandas. And I still stand by that comparison. But I’ve come to a new way of understanding these tiny beings: they’re aliens, sent to learn about our way of life and report back to their people.
They watch us, but they don’t really understand what we’re saying, and we don’t exactly speak their language, either. They find our culture strange and often bewildering, but they’re generally willing to humor us, with our strange rituals and insistence on things like giving them baths and changing their diapers. They’re observing us and compiling data for their report to their leader, usually with a sort of detached wonder, the appropriate posture for a tiny scientist or anthropologist sent to another world, but occasionally their faces betray other emotions, and sometimes, they break down altogether under the strain of their difficult and top-secret mission.
I often wonder about the stories they’re going to take back to their leaders, but sometimes, when they scream in the middle of the night, I’m not so sure they really come in peace.
While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….
But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.
One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.
Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.
It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.
The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.
She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.
Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.
Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.
Recently, our doctor told us it was time to start feeding the gals some rice cereal, to let them practice eating from a spoon and start them off on a solid least-likely to cause an allergic reaction (food allergies may be an issue with Claire’s spina bifida). Claire, who is already our happiest eater when it comes to bottles, took to the rice cereal immediately. Etta seemed to think we had devised a fun new way to kill her. The results were pretty funny:
And for my friend Stacy who said Etta needed to be a meme: