When the sun hasn’t gone down but the clock says it should have, I become a different kind of parent. The inept, melt-down kind.
When Clara cries in the grocery store, I say, “It’s okay to cry. We’ll take a nap soon,” so that everyone can hear how in control of the situation I am. When she is trying to open her sippy cup of milk with her teeth, I slyly trade it out for the one with water so that a successful attempt on her part does not mean visitors will wonder if it’s just them or does our cabin smell sour. I feel have a keen sense for what couches can be climbed and what food can be chewed safely. But when Clara wakes up at midnight and again at 1:00 a.m. and again at 4:00 a.m., I am paralyzed by thoughts of all the other babies who are sleeping through the night and I cry out to Aaron, “It’s been sixteen-months and she is still waking up. Fix this for me now!”
Yet, there was a midnight not long ago when Clara turned me into her mom, and not just the frazzled, ranting pumpkin type that comes around when the clock strikes twelve. I had tried to let Clara cry it out and she chose instead to throw all her blankets out of the crib that she was alternately chewing and trying to climb. I walked in to see my bawling girl and she wails, “Maaaamaaaaa!”
I’ve come to think that the transition from infancy into toddlerhood is not marked by the act of walking but by a moment of understanding. I see in Clara that the ability to understand who we are begins in relationship, that to know who we are is to know who we are to other people, and that the natural result of understanding is language. I often underestimate how powerfully language either bonds or destroys relationships. When she wailed “Mama,” I felt she was not just my baby but I was also her mother. I’ve been a mom for over two years, if you count the months Clara was scarfing down umbilical juice, but I didn’t feel like a real one until she said it. And sometimes, the feeling is the reality. I have believed since Clara was born that I have a baby, but I needed her to call me “mom” to know resolutely that, truly no matter what, I would always love her. I am hers; she named me “mama” and the word became flesh.
It’s like the happy marriage magic trick. Sometimes I get real nasty, like Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” poem nasty, with the only thing that’s ever felt oppressively patriarchal in my life: the moral imperative. I’ve slammed the door in Moral Imperative’s face and pouted, “What’s so wrong with doing something for the money?” or “What’s so wrong with anger and doubt?,” but recently I’ve been wondering, “What’s so wrong with divorce?” It sort of makes sense to me that two people might grow apart after the kids are raised and just, innocently and naturally, want to try something new. But sometimes the universals don’t work as particulars and what’s fine for some in theory never works for me in practice. Especially when you’ve been using the happy marriage trick for as long as we have.
The happy marriage trick has two parts. First, say you’re happy. Cuddle up to Spouse Man and say, “You make me so happy” or over dinner, in between bites of salmon, say, “You know, I’m lucky I have you.” And then, say it to yourself, mean it just a little, let the words get a little warm inside, and again, like a mom born out of the word “mama,” the words become real.
It took us seven years to figure out the second part. I was whining one day that Aaron got to do whatever he wanted and I didn’t get to do anything I wanted. He said this to me, I thought jokingly: “Ask and you shall receive.” It hadn’t occurred to me that I hadn’t asked. It changes things up a bit when you know you’re going to get what you want, but I said anyway, “Aaron, can I go to Kaladi Brother’s coffee shop tomorrow for a couple hours and buy a $2.39 cup of coffee and write?” I received and it was amazing. I think whether we’re naming something into existence, saying something until it’s real, or asking so that we may receive, words can change our lives.
In way of an abrupt but necessary conclusion, a couple pictures of Clara:
Show the camera your happy face.
Now, show it your sad face.