Sunday, May 14, 2006


by Anna Quindlen,
Newsweek Columnist and Author > >

If not for the photographs, I might have a hard time> believing they ever existed. The pensive infant with> the swipe of dark bangs and the black button eyes of> a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow> ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy> toddler with the lower lip that curled into an> apostrophe above her chin.> > All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow> but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what> I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I> am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the> same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of> disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who> sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until> I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower> gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed> more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the> bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from> plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick> soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky> at its center, the baby is buried deep within each,> barely discernible except through the unreliable> haze of the past.> > Everything in all the books I once pored over is> finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry> Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry> and sleeping through the night and early-childhood> education, all grown obsolete. Along with Goodnight> Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are> battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if> you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories.> > What those books taught me, finally, and what the> women on the playground taught me, and the> well-meaning relations --what they taught me, was> that they couldn't really teach me very much at all.> Raising children is presented at first as a> true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until> finally, far along, you realize that it is an> endless essay. No one knows anything. One child> responds well to positive reinforcement, another can> be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout.> One child is toilet trained at 3, his sibling at 2.> When my first child was born, parents were told to> put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not> choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last> arrived, babies were put down on their backs because> of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a> new parent this ever-shifting certainty is> terrifying, and then soothing.> > Eventually you must learn to trust yourself.> Eventually the research will follow. I remember 15> years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton's> wonderful books on child development, in which he> describes three different sorts of infants: average,> quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet> codicil for an 18-month old who did not walk. Was> there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was> there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was> he developmentally delayed, physically challenged?> Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year> he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can> walk, too.> > Every part of raising children is humbling, too.> Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been> enshrined in the, "Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of> Fame." The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad> language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell> off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool> pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer> camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out> of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test,> and I responded, What did you get wrong? (She> insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at> the McDonald's drive-through speaker and then drove> away without picking it up from the window. (They> all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them> to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons.> What was I thinking?> > But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most> of us make while doing this. I did not live in the> moment enough. This is particularly clear now that> the moment is gone, captured only in photographs.> > There is one picture of the three of them, sitting> in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing> set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I> could remember what we ate, and what we talked> about, and how they sounded, and how they looked> when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in> such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner,> bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a> little more and the getting it done a little less.> > Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't,> what was me and what was simply life. When they were> very small, I suppose I thought someday they would> become who they were because of what I'd done. Now I> suspect they simply grew into their trueselves> because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back> off and let them be.The books said to be relaxed and> I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was> sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned> out. I wound up with the three people I like best in> the world, who have done more than anyone to> excavate my essential humanity. That's what the> books never told me. I was bound and determined to> learn from the experts. It just took me a while to> figure out who the experts were.

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