This is an excerpt of the beginning of my new book. Would love any feedback you might want to share – positive or negative.
I distinctly remember the moment I arrived with horrifying clarity at the conclusion that despite being a rockstar babysitter, I pretty much had no natural ability to raise my own kid. Since the time I was ten, parents lined up to pay me to watch their kids. Yes, ten. They were insane to leave their kids with a ten-year-old kid, but I didn’t know that then. I’d already had a paper route for a couple of years and met most of the parents while I collected their subscription fees along my route. By the time I was a teenager, I was legendary. Well, as legendary as babysitters living in a one-stoplight Ohio town could be in the 80’s. Had I known that getting other peoples’ kids to mind me for a few hours was so very different than getting my own kid to mind me for several years, I might have tried to buff up on the parenting classes, delayed becoming a parent or something.
Instead, I found myself at three a.m. sitting outside my daughter’s bedroom door, listening to my nine-month-old scream hysterically, sobbing for me with great drama usually reserved for the big screen. It took everything I had to not open the door like I had so many nights before. And so I sat there in the dark hallway, my back against her door, crying my own great rivers of tears onto the soggy pages of the book I’d purchased only hours ago at the advice of my pediatrician. I mean, isn’t it pretty clear that something’s gone horribly awry when your pediatrician suggests books with titles like “Parenting the Difficult Child” and “Parenting the Emotionally Intense Child”? It was the final acknowledgment that I’d failed one of the first, simplest tasks of motherhood – raising my own child.
I’d like to pretend that my daughter’s intensity was all my husband’s fault, but I do remember my great grandmother telling me with complete exasperation, “I swear you’d argue with a fence post long enough it would finally dig itself up and dig a new hole just to get away from you.” It seemed rather uncalled for at the time, but now, I’m not so sure. I’ve raised three kids with half of my DNA, and I could pretty much tell any of them that, so I think she was probably pretty justified in her assessment of the situation.
My husband, haggard with lack of sleep, came into the hall and watched me for a moment. He didn’t say anything, just patted my shoulder and stumbled back into the bedroom. And when he’d gone back to bed, I sat there alone for what seemed like an eternity, listening to my firstborn’s sobs and hiccups, hearing her whimper, “Mommy!” again and again.
I made a decision that night to listen to my gut. I’d see what the experts had to say about a subject, and then I’d do what my gut told me to do. And my gut was telling me that nothing good could come from my daughter thinking I would abandon her, leave her when she needed me. There had to be a better way, because this wasn’t working for any of us.
I opened the door to her room, pulled her up from her crib and hugged her tight. She wrapped her tiny little arms around my neck and held me for dear life, her wet little face tucked in the crook of my neck. I rocked her to sleep that night, stroking her wispy brown hair. And I held her for a long, long time after she’d fallen asleep before I finally put her back in her bed. I felt like such a failure, and yet there was a peace that came with doing what I thought I needed to do. I didn’t know it then, but the conflict of those two emotions – feeling like a failure for not meeting someone else’s expectations, a higher standard set than I could meet – and a sense of peace for listening to myself – those would be my constant companions for years to come.
The next morning after I’d seen my husband off to work, I sat my wee daughter down to have our first heart to heart talk. She wasn’t even a year and shouldn’t have been ready to reason or be rational, and yet it was what I needed to try.
“Rachel,” I said, holding her in my lap, “I won’t ever leave you to cry like I did last night, ok?”
“Promise?” she asked, her face serious and intense. “Promise?”
“I promise,” I said. “But you have to promise me something, too. You have to promise that when it’s time to go to bed, you will stay in your crib and you won’t cry to get out. You don’t have to go to sleep, and we’ll make sure you have things to do, but you have to stay in your crib so I know you’re safe. Can you promise me that?”
She didn’t answer right away, and began to worry that I’d put too much on her too soon. She was too little for this kind of talk. She was still a baby. What was I thinking?
Finally she spoke. “Ok, Mommy. I promise. But can I have books and toys in my crib?”
I smiled and hugged her. “Deal.”
I wasn’t sure she’d even remember the conversation, but that night when I announced it was bedtime, she moved about her room, selecting the toys and books that would keep her company that night. We went through our getting ready for bed rituals, and when I kissed her goodnight and shut the door, I waited for the inevitable crying.
It didn’t happen.
I guess I should have clued into the fact that since my daughter was already talking in full sentences and walking at nine months of age that I wasn’t really dealing with ordinary, but I didn’t – not then or for several years. All I knew is that what I read in parenting books and the advice I received from most of my friends and family didn’t work when it came to my kid.
I am convinced now, seeing her as an adult, that if I’d listened to all that advice back then, I would’ve broken the core of who my daughter was – a highly gifted, artistic child, the product of a highly gifted father and an off-beat mother. The standard advice would never really apply. By listening to my gut, I still made mistakes, a lot of mistakes, but I didn’t lose my daughter. I bonded with her, and she with me. And in the end, is there really anything more important than that?