Last week my daughter, Mira, turned 10 years old. “I’m double digits now, Mom,” she told me numerous times, a beaming smile of pride spreading across her face. She is no longer my baby. But equally as transformative, I am no longer the clueless, scared and overwhelmed young mother that first counted her fingers and toes a decade ago.
When Mira was born and the doctor placed her on my lap, I didn’t cry. I wasn’t overcome with joy. I just remember repeating, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God.” The enormity of the moment, the vastness of the change that had just happened in my life, left me flummoxed. This was my child. I was now a mother. I shook from the newness of it all.
Later, when the nurse brought her to me in my hospital room, her presence felt ghost-like. What just an hour before did not exist in this world now lay beside me in a bassinet, her cheeks and lips red with life, her dark hair like a waft of downy feathers on her head. She started to wheeze. Because she had been born so quickly, she still had mucus in her lungs. It was my job to help her get it up. “Hold her on your lap and pat her back,” the broad-shouldered, patience-worn nurse told me. “Then suction out the mucus.” She turned on her heel and left. My husband Sid was in the room with me but I’d never felt so alone, as if the entire world outside the window didn’t even exist. It was just me and this child and I had to figure out how, in the most basic terms, to keep her alive.
I patted; I suctioned. She kept wheezing. I panicked. Sid called for the nurse. She returned, a look of disappointment on her face. I was patting Mira’s back as if it were a tambourine. “No, no,” the nurse said. “This is how you do it.” She scooped Mira up and with one hand on her chest and the other on her back started whacking her. Firm, rhythmic thumps. Mira coughed and spattered. My pulse quickened; all the blood surely left my face. Was she hurting my baby? Should I stop her? I was helpless in my cluelessness.
“Let me take her to the nursery,” the nurse said, saving me from bearing witness. “I’ll be right back.”
I was simultaneously scared and relieved. What was she doing to my baby? and Thank God she was doing it and not me. When they returned, Mira’s breathing was clear. The coughing and wheezing were gone. The nurse taught me the football hold and Mira started nursing. All seemed to be going well. But when Mira cried in the middle of the night, Sid slept through it. No nurses came. No one was going to swoop in this time. It was all me.
In all my years of schooling, I don’t think I ever learned as much as I did in those first three months with Mira. She was extremely colicky. Breastfeeding was more intense than any triathlon, the challenge of getting her to latch and stay awake to nurse combined with my lackluster “I pumped for 40 minutes and only got 1 ounce?!” output. She was allergic to nearly every formula we tried. She’d only sleep when Sid rocked her so vigorously that sweat ran down his temples. And then as soon as we dared to give in to our exhaustion and put her down in her crib, she’d startle awake.
There were many moments in those first few months when I thought, “I am failing at this.” My baby wasn’t eating. She wasn’t gaining weight. The crying started at about 4 p.m. and continued until we could finally settle her down around 10. So many times I fell into a deep sleep only to hear her cries, look at the clock, and see only 10 minutes had passed.
How was I ever going to survive this? And couldn’t I just go back to work because that was a heck of a lot easier than this.
But slowly, something started to happen. The baby who shocked me with her newness started to respond to my voice. I sang to her and she smiled. I read aloud the books I was reading and she settled down. We found a formula she could tolerate and she started sleeping better at night.
I learned that the stack of parenting books I pored over looking for answers were a guide, not a Bible. I learned that parenting is trial and error. And when my second child was born, I learned that what works for one child isn’t guaranteed to work for the other. “You have to figure out for yourself what works and what doesn’t,” my mother told me time and again. And while I wanted more concrete direction, I now realize her answer was the most accurate one.
As Mira started trying new foods, exploring her world, learning to talk and learning to push limits and press my buttons, I learned that motherhood is a state of constant “on” mode. You can’t ease back on the discipline, the routines, the expectations, because while they are exhausting they are what maintains my sanity and keep my children in check.
This past week marked my 10-year anniversary as a mother. As many warned me, the next decade will make the first one seem like a summer picnic. I panic at that thought — hormones and dating and temptations — but then I look at what we’ve already been able to accomplish in these first 10 years.
Today, the top of Mira’s head reaches nearly to my shoulder. She wakes up on her own at 5:30 to shower before school and completes all her homework without any guidance or input from me. Gone are the days when she always had to be in the same room as I am, or at least check in on me every few minutes. Instead, she can often be found behind her closed bedroom door, talking with a friend on the phone, painting her nails or reading a book. She is funny and a great story teller. She has deep well of patience and a giving heart; she understands empathy and how to use it to bring joy to others. She loves to bake and read cookbooks and Sid and I wonder where these passions will take her.
I look at what we’ve help shape over 10 years and realize we didn’t do a perfect job. We’ve definitely overindulged her and maybe our high expectations put too much pressure on her. Or maybe not. Maybe she is exactly who she is supposed to be, and we’re just guardians for the journey. I like that idea and so that’s what I’m going with. And while the next 10 years might be filled with drama, the first 10 have taught me that no matter what the challenge, I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. And hopefully, as with the first 10 years, that will be enough.