In August Liza, her dad, and her stepmother welcomed a beautiful baby girl to their family. I’m told she sleeps nearly all day long and posesses a calm happy demeanor. The few times I’ve seen her I’ve been awestruck by her flawless infant skin, big eyes, and adorable rose-bud of a mouth. I’m delighted for Liza and her family and love seeing my ex husband practice his patented “one –arm baby holding” pose. But I can’t help but be struck by the difference between this baby and Liza during her infancy. Where her baby sister is calm and placid Liza came screaming into the world as a red faced ball of fury. Nothing seemed to pacify her – not slings or swings or toys or walks in the stroller. The only things that would calm her were sleeping on top of one of us, her pacifiers, or music (although even the she could be finicky – eschewing soothing ballads she seemed to prefer patter songs such as “Pick a Pocket or Two” or “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” ). The hazy blur of her first year is punctuated by moments of utter exhausted desperation as I searched vainly for something to make her happy. I became convinced that the problem was not my fussy frantic baby – it was me. Why were other moms so good at this when I was so very very bad? This notion that resurfaced last weekend when I commented to my ex husband how lovely his sleeping baby daughter was and he jokingly replied “yeah, I guess we know where Liza’s fussiness came from huh?”. I know he was teasing but there exists a grain of truth in every jest and the truth here was clear – I was the anxious parent and I had given birth to the anxious child.
When I was pregnant I imagined myself taking to parenting like a duck to water. I’d lovingly sing my baby to sleep, we’d stroll the neighborhood where passersby would comment on how cute and good she was, I’d manage it all, going back to work handily and still finding time to come up with creative and educational ways to bond with my daughter.
Boy did reality dope slap me “upside the head’ (as we say in Maine).
My maternity leave passed in a blur of days when I could barely get myself showered, of crying hunched over my screaming child as I heard my ex husband’s car pull out of the driveway on his way to freedom each morning. “What do you WANT?” I would wail , wondering what fates had given me this baby when clearly I was supposed to have the happy smiling babies in the pampers ads. Even bringing her on simple outings gave birth to fits of worry – how far could I drive before she started screaming? Days at home stretched endlessly – could I make it through a shower without her wailing? Would she sleep more than 30 minutes at a stretch? The days and nights blurred together and I remember especially sitting with her at midnight in the rocking chair of the nursery watching the lights of my neighbor’s houses go out one by one and feeling so utterly totally alone. I tried to return to my beloved jazzercise classes, taking advantage of the free babysitting, only to get called out of class after class to retrieve my furious baby. My return to work was full of calls from her daycare a block away “she’s still crying can you come get her/hold her/ rock her? ” Honestly looking back on that first year of Liza’s life I don’t know who cried more, me or her. We tried gas drops and different formulas, let her sleep in her vibrating bouncy seat and held her until I felt as though my arm would literally fall off. I reached out to a dear friend who had a baby just two months older thinking we could spend our time commiserating about the trials of new motherhood. What a shock to my system to discover not only had she morphed into an uber-mom but her daughter was nothing like mine. While her baby spent literal hours examining the wonder of her own hand, mine discarded every new discovery within minutes as if to say “is that all you got? Come ON I’m bored here!” Instead of a comrade in arms all I found was the puzzled stare of a woman unfamiliar with the utter terror I felt at being a mom. My anxiety around Liza’s temperament grew stronger with each passing year . Surely a better parent would handle her better. Surely a better parent would be calm. Surely a better parent would not have slammed the wall over the changing table so hard in frustration that the photos on the other side of the wall came crashing down. Surely a better parent was anyone other than me. Other parents talked about bringing their children out to eat with them at any number of restaurants – I had a child who shook and hyperventilated if you brought her anywhere she “hadn’t been before,” a child who at 5 ran screaming down the block outside a bagel shop because she was convinced the steam from the bagels meant the shop was on fire. I”d love to tell you that I handled her anxiety with aplomb, calmly guiding her through new experiences and soothing her fears. I didn’t. The worse her worries got the worse my anxiety about her worries got. Like the worst kind of relationship between addict and enabler we fed off of each other in a vicious cycle. I grew used to the tightening in my chest every time I had to navigate another experience that could lead to one of her meltdowns, and the resulting sigh of relief as we got through one unscathed. Years later Kelly would tell me that one friend even expressed her sympathy that Kelly had to ‘spend time with that child.” That friend isn’t in our lives any more.
That horrible first year is now a decade in the past. Liza’s grown into a funny, talented, sarcastic young lady who shares my love of Sondheim, a passion for ice cream, and a budding fascination with HGTV. We share the same thighs, the same belly and the same walk. Together we’ve weathere d ten years of tears at the onset of new experiences — tears on the soccer field, tears at the rock climbing birthday party, tears at clowns at the circus, tears on countless school mornings , worries about fire drills and thunderstorms , tests and gym class. Ten years of crying behind my sunglasses on the way to work wondering what I’d done wrong, why all around me were parents with kids who moved easily from one thing to another, parents who didn’t live with a tension in their chest all day. Ten years of waking up praying that the morning would go smoothly. To Liza’s credit she’s worked hard, grown up, agreed to some outside help which has been a huge benefit, found her niche in acting and dance thanks to encouraging and nurturing teachers and directors, and come into a calmer more confident place in her life. Her dad and stepmom created a warm secure home for her, extended family has wrapped her in love and Kelly and my friends have hung in there with her time and time again with love and patience even when it’s been hard to understand. I’m often seized with a desire to clutch her fiercely to me as if to stop the relentless march of time . As Liza grows more mature and calmer she’s helping me do the same and we’ve found our way to a better place. But as I coo and exlaim over her adorable baby sister I’m seized with a longing to go back in time – to hold that angry squalling baby one more time and murmer in her ear that it would all be alright and that Liza and momma would get through it all and that most of all …there was nothing to worry about after all.