This week, I was going through my photographs and I came across these self-portraits I took with my daughter with the built-in computer camera during her first year of life:
They were especially sweet to find, because it was also this week that my daughter and I toured the kindergarten where she will attend school next year. Now, we’ve all seen the stories and read the Facebook posts from the moms whose kids are going off to kindergarten. The days are long, but the years fly by. This isn’t one of those posts. I am indeed teary about the idea of my girl starting “real school” next year and how official that feels – the momentum that begins now and doesn’t stop until she’s tossing a mortarboard into the air in a large stadium. It’s just that in looking at these photos, I am reminded how much I wanted this day to come back then, and to come quickly. And this isn’t a “oh, how I wish I could go back and cherish those days” kind of thing, either. I don’t. In fact, those days were so rough for me that I wouldn’t really want to experience them again. (Oh, this is that kind of post). Sort of.
I have been pretty successful in my life. I was a good student, got straight “A’s,” won “Best Dressed” in high school (I think because I never wore jeans), and got every job I ever interviewed for. I searched for and found a wonderful life partner who shares many, if not more of, the same successes I enjoyed in my life. We both figured out the game and learned how to play it well; we excelled at the things our society values and honed the traits that would put us on better footing to continue to win.
So it should come as no surprise that I approached motherhood in the same fashion. After finally conceiving, I began the quest for motherhood knowledge. I read books – lots of books. This is my usual approach; read a lot about something and then decide how I feel about it. In reading all of those books, I decided that I wanted a natural birth, which seemed best for the baby. I crafted my “birth plan,” took all of my vitamins, got the nursery just so, and sat around and waited.
It was at my 39 week appointment when I was diagnosed with preeclampsia. I had been swollen to shiny tightness for much of my third trimester, but it wasn’t until this appointment that I achieved the sky-high blood pressure to warrant the diagnosis. So, out the window went the birth plan; I was going to have a medically induced labor. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that all didn’t go well. Thankfully, my daughter and I ended up okay, but we had a rocky beginning. And I didn’t know that it would go downhill from there.
In much the same way that I had a rough time with Sally’s puppydom, I had a terrible time with my newborn. She was colicky and slept unpredictably, if at all. The first night we brought her home from the hospital, after about two hours of straight crying and no successes in consoling her, my husband had to put her in the car seat and drive up and down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive until she fell asleep. Our whole first year continued like this. It’s possible that it didn’t, but that’s how I remember it – baby crying, not being able to calm her, and feeling helpless. It was the first time in my life (second, after Sally’s puppyhood), that doing my best wasn’t good enough. All of the formulas I had learned and perfected didn’t work.
It’s this “doing your best” that made me want to share all of this in the first place. Because it has taken almost four and a half years for me to look at those photos of the early days of either Sally’s puppyhood or my daughter’s infancy and not wish that it had all played out differently. It made me think about that charge to “show up and do your best,” and to question it. When does a situation really require our best? We tell each other to do our best on tests and interviews, in sports, school and in relationships. But what does this mean? Do I want the firefighter coming to my burning house to do his or her best, or rather what is required of the situation? Do I want my surgeon focused on being the best surgeon, or to focus on the task and on how my particular body is responding in this particular surgery? If I think about it, trying to achieve my “best” has given me the most angst in my life. My attempts at striving for it have been the very things that have given me ulcers, kept me up at night, and once caused my husband to proclaim that our house was so perfect it felt like it was my house, not ours. Ouch; not my best. Is it possible that striving for the best is a total mental construct, anyway? Are we ever really achieving the apex of something (if that would even be definable), or are we simply doing what is needed, what is called for?
It would seem that most situations don’t call for our best, because if they did, that’s what we would focus on. And for most of my life, that’s what I did focus on. But life, I’m learning, (and motherhood, partnership, friendship, work, crises, etc.), simply require that we show up. And I mean show up with all of one’s self, not just in physical form while the mental and emotional parts are checked out planning tonight’s dinner, answering emails or wondering if life would have been better if we had been born to a different family, had chosen a different partner and had pursued that career as a dolphin trainer. The only thing I would have done differently in looking back at those photos of the early days with my daughter is to be there. And I’m telling you right now, that would have been the toughest thing I could have done, but it was really all that was needed. For some reason (and I’ll never know why, no matter how many times I torture myself in thinking about it over and over), ours was a discontented baby. But she didn’t need me to fix her, and she didn’t need my best, really. Because in trying to give my best, I was first and foremost trying to alleviate my own discomfort with what I perceived to be the chaos of the situation. And instead of sitting with her long enough to calm both of us down, (which may or may not have happened), I buried my nose in books of someone else’s advice on how to “fix” my kid. As with everything else I had attempted in my life, I felt there had to be a formula that equalled success.
A dear friend of mine and first-time expectant mom, recently wrote to a group of us moms to solicit advice on gear, books, and words of wisdom we might be able to share with her. I quickly responded with my list of survival books and gear and actually felt quite good about what I had sent. But I now feel remiss in having sent that. And in doing it again, I would instead share with her more of what I have written here. I would not tell her to enjoy those precious days (because sadly I didn’t, though she might), but I would tell her to be there for those days (because I wasn’t, but I wish I had been). If I regret anything, it’s that during this, one of my most trying life experiences to date, I didn’t practice being present. I never tapped my inner resources or wisdom that may have known a course of action (or inaction), because I was busy trying to fix, trying to be my best.
My daughter is four and a half today. She has so many qualities that knock my socks off that to write of them here would take too much space and would probably bore you. I can see where my husband and I have had an influence on her, but I also see where she is mostly her own person and was really that way from the get-go, strong-willed infant screaming and all. And like her mom, and Sally who is laying next to me in a sunny spot on the rug, and you reading this, there is only one of her. And once she’s gone, there will never be another just like her. I can’t slow down the passing of time and keep her from going to kindergarten, but I can slow down the moments and my racing thoughts and my need to escape what are sometimes uncomfortable times. I like to think that everyone in my life, especially those closest to me, is here for a reason. And if true, that alone is worth showing up for. Perhaps one of the great gifts my daughter and dog have given me is the awareness of the need I have spent many years cultivating, of doing everything right, of being the best. In their usual fashion, they are patient with me as I fumble around trying to find a new way of being. And they never ask me to do it right, or perfectly; but already being masters of the present moment, they just wait beside me until I do.