On a snowy winter’s morning twenty years ago, my graduate school adviser sat at the foot of my bed, where I lay with my head and shoulders propped up on pillows, and told me the plain truth, “What you have just done has happened billions upon billions of times in human history and yet I know that right now you feel like the first woman who has ever done this amazing thing. The unoriginal act of giving birth is more potent than any original piece of art. But let me also tell you this: soon there will be a cake with one candle on it, then another with two candles, and then five, then sixteen and, before you know it, twenty.”
Claude arrived on Epiphany, the Christian holiday otherwise know as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, when according to legend the three gift-bearing Magi arrived at a stable where another mother marveled at her newborn son. Born shortly after midnight, Claude might have arrived the day before had his umbilical cord not been wrapped around his neck and torso, leaving no slack. With only his head delivered, the midwives carefully tucked Claude’s face into my left inner thigh and somersaulted the rest of his body out and over his umbilical cord, thereby avoiding any compression of the cord. Two hours later, having confirmed that mother and baby were well, the midwives left us with a clean bedroom and we were on our own. At five in the morning, I was startled from the deepest sleep by the reedy cry of my baby. My baby. It took nearly half an hour to change that first diaper in the pre-dawn darkness.
Firstborns make a woman a mother. In one night, all the things I had previously known myself to be—woman, daughter, sister, graduate student, dog owner, reluctant wife, to name a few—were buckled in the back seat of my identity. So strong was the love I instantly felt for my first baby, who became the boy who is now a man, like many women, when I became pregnant again I worried whether or not I could love my second child nearly as much. But I did and I do.
Romantic love is a rush because the lover can view herself through the eyes of the beloved, yet her focus remains largely on the self. Maternal love, however, causes normal women to do things they would do for nobody else, not even themselves. I don’t mean epic stories of crossing mountains barefoot with babies strapped to backs, but the quotidian. Holding a vomiting child in your arms so he feels comforted and safe, giving up a full night’s sleep, sometimes for years and, perhaps hardest for me, being bored so your child can have fun, a feeling any adult who has played Candyland over and over will recognize. I was genuinely thrilled when Claude and Hugo finally learned their numbers (at around the same time, given Claude’s yet undiagnosed dyslexia) if only so we could play the card game Uno. Our Candyland game promptly “disappeared.”
While I seem to remember every detail about the first few days of Claude’s life, after about a week of motherhood, the days blur in my memory. Until one afternoon in mid-February. The crispness of deep winter had shifted to the damp, penetrating chill of late winter. For weeks, that the sun shone was discernable only because the stratus clouds stitched to the horizon in all directions brightened for a period of time each day. Standing alone with my infant, the concrete pathway alongside my house sucked the heat of my body from the soles of my feet. Moments earlier, I had pulled shut the self-locking front door before realizing my keys were still in the house. I walked to the side of the house and stared down at a ground level casement window. No bigger than 30 inches wide and 24 inches high, it easily pushed open and levered up to the basement ceiling. Several times in the five years before Claude was born, I had gingerly slid through that opened window, feet first and belly down, and plopped to the basement floor like a gymnast jumping off a balance beam. Voila; I’d have broken into my own home. If my dogs were with me, I’d leash them to the front door handle. Or, if I didn’t have their leashes, I’d give the command, “Stay,” and after disappearing through what must have seemed a hole to the dogs, I hurried up the basement stairs to collect them before they wandered into the street. But this time, I couldn’t leave my baby on the ground for even two minutes, not just because it was bone-chillingly cold out. No, it was because he was completely vulnerable and belonged in my arms. Where he was safe.
I knocked on the door of the house next door, which was rented to several young guys, all students at nearby Ohio State University. “Could you help me? I need someone to crawl into my basement and let me in. My baby was born six weeks ago today.”
I was no longer an independent agent.
And That’s Just Fine
Two years earlier, on a bright day when it was warm enough to walk in shirtsleeves, but cool enough that none of the buildings had yet turned on air conditioning, I walked across the oval at Ohio State with the same adviser who would later visit me on the day Claude was born. I retold an Amy Irving quote that went along the lines of, “First I was known as the daughter of Jules Irving, then I was known as the wife of Steven Speilberg, what I don’t want next is to be known as the mother of Max Speilberg.” I suppose I sympathized with Irving’s feminist complaint about being a woman who was chronically defined by the men in her life while she herself had an estimable career.
“You know,” said my adviser, who had already amassed a substantial collection of awards, honors and grants as a specialist in the art of South Asia and continues to do so to this day, “if I am only remembered for being the mother of my son, nothing would please me more. And I’d feel exactly the same way if he were a daughter.” Perhaps to someone else, this would have been a toss away comment in a toss away conversation. But her words pierced me. From my earliest memories, I had believed that the path for my parents, especially my mother, to love me was for me to earn their pride. It was not until years later that I understood what I desired from my parents was like wanting a homeless person to give me money; they just didn’t have it to give. Though I had no plans for children, an inkling of a different kind of motherhood, one in which I consciously chose my role, arose. Like a magpie spying a gem, I snatched my adviser’s comment from the air and tucked it safely away.
Becoming a parent does not require prior training or a license. Parenting styles, good and bad, abound and yet overwhelming the majority of children grow up to become normal adults (whew). I have read studies that indicate that parents have scant impact on how their children turn out. I have observed this first hand as Claude and Hugo have very different, if not complementary, personalities. Even in college, Claude is often the first student in his class to turn in a project. Whereas upon Hugo’s report cards the words “missing assignments” are often found. While Claude guards his time like gold ingots, Hugo seems incapable of saying no and is chronically overbooked. Nonetheless, I see similar core beliefs in my two eldest. They are both incredibly responsible, (far, far, far more so in matters outside the home than in) as other adults regularly go out of their way to tell me. I do not think this is coincidental.
My father used to often say that his parenting style was derived from remembering what his own father did and doing just the opposite. And when those of us who knew both my grandfather and my father heard him say this, we laughed. Though his hippie appearance iconoclastically compares to my grandfather’s Eisenhower-era style, my father is very much like his father, particularly in his emotions. Saying you absolutely will not do or be something seems an unavoidable recipe for the opposite. It’s like the proverbial saying about anyone who disavows thinking of elephants, which only sticks the image of elephants in his or her mind.
Strict, /strikt/, adjective 1. demanding that rules concerning behavior are obeyed and observed.
“Do you know what the word ‘strict’ means, Holly?” I shook my head. “Strict was how your father was raised and that’s how we are going to raise you,” said my mother, referring to my stepfather whom she had married the year before when I was in kindergarten. Today, I know the word ‘strict’ to indicate an underlying structure that is clearly understood and followed without fail. But what my mother meant was that I would be punished capriciously, whether or not a rule had previously been explained. Punishment could be very structured—as when two months after announcing their parenting style, I was caught stealing lipstick testers from Sears and subsequently lied about it. It was the beginning of June, I was precisely six and a half, and had just finished the first grade.
“You can spend the entire summer vacation, that’s nearly three months you know, in your bedroom. Or you can get spanked with your father’s belt tonight and then go to bed immediately after supper for the rest of the summer. Go to your room and think about which one you will choose.”
It was my first lesson in the awful truth: Waiting is worse than physical pain. After an hour, my mother came to my room and counseled me to take the beating. “Imagine hearing your friends playing outside all day and you can’t join them?” I agreed and was left alone to await the execution of my choice, learning the second awful truth: It’s a crap shoot whether or not to put on extra underwear to pad the blow because if they pulled down your pants and found out, well, it would be worse than a whipping with only one pair of underwear on. With experience I came to learn that bare assed whippings generally happened only in the unstructured, heat of the moment punishments, such I received the summer I was eight-years-old and didn’t hear my mother calling me to come home. When I eventually arrived, she tore my shorts off in the kitchen and used the back of my plastic hairbrush. My friends stood on the sidewalk in front of the house and listened through the opened window, running home when I became silent.
For the entire summer of 1972, my mother and her husband followed through on their promise to send me to bed every night after supper. Throughout that summer, I stole bottles of children’s chewable vitamins whenever I went to the grocery store with my mother. I shared them with the kids on my street because they tasted like candy, but also because I had fallen prey to the television commercials in which kids spilled out of a school building while an authoritative voice-over stated that most children do not get their daily allowance of vitamins. On my block, I took care of that problem.
For many reasons, parenting is perhaps easier for me than it was for my mother. When I was twenty-seven, I chose to conceive a child with the man I loved. My pregnancy was not accidental nor did I get pregnant to leave my parents’ home as some say my mother did. I was college educated, had studied and traveled in Europe, was employed at a major university, had lived in the same house for a number of years and was about to begin graduate school. I had lived a full life and had many options going forward. I was afraid, however, that I did not know how to be a good mother. As soon as I learned I was pregnant, I did what I had always done when facing the unknown: I studied. I read texts on pregnancy, delivery and the care of babies. I went to public talks and, later, even conferences on parenting. I sought out women of all ages whose parenting I admired, which in our community was easy, and not only observed them, but endlessly asked questions. For years, I walked at seven every Sunday morning with a dear friend who was a grandmother and an at-home daycare provider. We talked of little else than childrearing.
I chose to be strict, but by my definition (which is also Merriam Webster’s) because I believe for children to feel safe, they need to know the rules and also that the parents will uphold them. Like my mother, I don’t play poker with consequences; never bluffing, I always follow through. But my consequences make sense and are never cruel (though Hugo might argue differently, as he often does in the moment). I believe children are best when expected to be responsible for their actions as well as pleasant company (I’m sort of old school/Dr. Benjamin Spock on this). I treat my children as sovereign people but I am in charge, I am their guide. I love them and want them to become whole, happy adults. It is hard work because children are relentless. I have said, “Yes, please? Or no, thank you?” so many thousands of times it is second nature and I frequently find myself positing the same question to children who are not my own, making me feel like an old school marm.
A Son Is a Son Until He Takes a Wife
But must whole, happy adults leave? Couldn’t I raise sons who stay close to their original family? To me? Certainly they must go out on their own and find their paths in life. But I have always hoped that they would not scatter the globe and only communicate with me, and each other, on birthdays and holidays. My fantasy is that after they go out in the world and have adventures, they one day settle in Akron and, should they have them, raise their own families nearby.
When the boys were little, I told them some day they would go away for college and live on a campus. Claude, who was about nine years old at the time, told me, “Oh, no, Mama, I’m going to live with you when I go to college.” I said he might feel differently when he was eighteen but he was adamant. He is now in his second year at the University of Michigan, which is a three-hour drive from Akron. After living in a dorm his freshman year where he made many good friends, Claude has been far happier living in the Sojourner Truth Co-operative House his sophomore year. In some ways, a university co-op is little different than a big meditation center like Karmê Chöling, where Claude has been going his entire life. Everyone has assigned jobs to keep the place running, one meal a day is prepared by cooks; the rest of the day the residents can cook for themselves from the well-stocked pantries. It’s easier than living in an apartment as his monthly rent is all-inclusive and relatively cheap. Except when studying abroad, Claude plans to live at the Truth House for the rest of his undergraduate career.
Watching Claude transition from his freshman year, where he deeply questioned all his collegiate choices and called me frequently to talk about his concerns, to this year where he has the relaxed confidence of a competent adult, makes me feel like it’s all coming together. Now, after all the work of raising a child and hoping I was making the right choices, it almost appears as if I had a master plan.
Well, I didn’t. For if the firstborn child makes the mother, it is also true that the mother learns nearly everything about childrearing with that firstborn. Claude hits all the major benchmarks first. From that first diaper change on the night he was born until the day I die, I am exposed to each stage of parenting with Claude as my perpetual guinea pig. When I sit down later this year with Hugo to help him apply to colleges, I will be greatly informed by the learning process I underwent when Claude applied two years ago (Hugo will not apply to sixteen institutions, I hereby promise). And Claude’s younger brothers might never live in dorms but rather apply to live in co-ops beginning their freshmen years, given Claude’s experience. And even though Lyra is a girl with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, we work with her on the very things her brothers required help with—sleeping through the night, holding her own cup, eating a variety of foods. Yes, we have worked more closely with Lyra on crawling than we did with the other boys. However, I recall when Claude was ten months old and still not crawling, my graduate adviser asked me if I had shown him how.
Adapting Is Required
Sometime many years ago, I began making Pillsbury cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing for my children’s birthday breakfasts. When the boys awaken to the smell of cinnamon rolls, they know it’s someone’s birthday because those are the only days of the year that I make them (they are horridly sweet, non-nutritious and, thus, perfect birthday food). When Claude, who has always been my healthiest eater, was in middle school I also began making him a birthday omelette, usually with onion, spinach and feta cheese. And, too, since he turned ten, we have taken him to our favorite Indian restaurant for his birthday dinner (Claude has eaten Indian food, which he loves, from the moment I introduced solid foods into his diet when I was also studying South Asian art and architecture).
With his birthday so early in January, well before classes start at his university, I believed we would continue these traditions for at least a few more years. But this year, Claude did not stay home over the entirety of winter break. On New Year’s Day, he rode an Amtrak train to Schenectady, New York where the young woman he has been dating picked him up at the station and took him to her parents’ home. On his twentieth birthday, Claude arose at five in the morning and made omelettes for his hostess, her sister and himself. The young couple piled into her car with another Michigan student and carpooled for ten hours before stopping at our house for a quick bowl of chili. Claude grabbed the rest of the things he needed for school and in less than an hour, they were gone.
Three days later, we received a postcard, which read:
I had a wonderful break and I already miss you dearly. My first class is in a few hours and I’m excited to start school. Still, It would be great to visit MLK weekend.
Claude will return home for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend when we will properly fête the debut of his third decade. He knows he is getting a sports coat because we went together to pick it out and have him measured for alterations (with 37 inch arms, the sleeves always need lengthened). And, I imagine, we will go to our favorite Indian restaurant where they will bring him a dessert adorned with a sparkler that represents the twenty years, which, yes, feel as if they have passed in no more time than it takes to watch a substantial film.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
The week’s New Yorker arrived with a short essay by John Hodgman, in which he asks the reader to pretend that he’s writing about his cats and not his children because telling stories about children “always seems a little lazy. Children tend to be sort of dumb, and, in the end, the stories are always the same: children say hilarious things, and I am old and dying.”
It is true that writing about children is a slippery slope that can easily descend into gooey treacle. And there is nothing like watching your own genetic packets go from instinctual blobs to broad-shouldered college men with full lives to italicize the swift passage of time. But of all the things I have done or will yet do with my life, none are as important as raising my children as well as I can. On the Darwinian fitness level it’s the hardwiring in everyone’s primal cortext, which means I’m possibly doing this only to help my genes carry on in the bigger genetic pool. But look, I have made mistakes with my kids and sometimes because of my kids, and yet when all said and done, I’m a better person for becoming a mother. This not every woman’s truth, but it is my truth. Being the mother I wanted to have has largely satisfied the unmet needs of the child I was.