The worst advice I ever received about becoming a parent–a response to my worries at never having cared for a newborn or toddler–was that I would always be one step ahead of my children. When my eldest son, Conor, arrived, he immediately proved this advice to be wrong.
His father and I knew nothing about babies, and we definitely did not believe Dr. Spock, when he wrote to listen to ourselves, that we were the experts: We did not know how to put on the cloth diapers delivered by a service my great-aunt had given us. (The diaper delivery man was perplexed when there were only 7 dirty diapers after Week One, and just a few the following week…for a colicky baby, cloth diapers were perfect burping cloths, floor cleaners, shoe polishers, and more. When hundreds of diapers fell from a closet, my grandmother nearly choked on laughter).
Tony and I did not know whether the tape on disposable diapers went in front or back. We were unprepared for the fact that babies do not sleep all night, or that a colicky baby would test our sanity and our patience. Thanks to the family who were present almost daily–my Irish twin, Michele, and her then-fiance, Andy; my mom and grandmothers, the three Marys, and my great aunt Anna–we survived. In fact, my dining room became a lunchtime gathering place, replacing the HoJo on Route 1, where we’d met for lunch forever.
At the time, I had just left a writing job because when the baby arrived early, I was a few weeks shy of maternity leave. (It galls me that this issue is still an issue, and that most working parents do not have paid leave, and cannot afford the unpaid leave of the Family & Medical Leave Act. Thanks to tireless advocates like my friend, Valerie Young, of the Caring Economy Campaign.
Dad, flummoxed by my resignation, said, “Motherhood is the one job you’ll never be able to quit.” He was right: 27 years later, and I am still at it.
As a new mother, I jealously guarded time spent with Conor, who was the most beautiful, precious, wonderful creature ever made. His red hair was a great surprise–as was colic, which set in after a week at home.
When exhaustion struck me, my Grandmom Hourihan (Gram) would let herself in before breakfast, take the baby from my bed, then sit with him for hours
in a wicker chair. How she loved him! She taught him to talk at 9 months, then looked after him for a few years. His favorite book was What Do People Do All Day, which he was happy to read over and over again. It drove me nuts–but not my Gram.
My Grandmom Lynch (Meme to my children) came on her days off from the nursing home where she worked, bundling him up for long walks through the neighborhood, or holding him and singing, The Tennessee Waltz, while he took a rare nap.
Meme was visiting one day and agreed to watch my batch of kids; Conor was 12 or 13, and I knew he would help out. A few hours later, I came home to find Meme on the couch with an ice pack on her knee, and Conor sitting anxiously beside her. He was wearing a skateboard helmet, and a lacrosse stick was on the floor. I looked at Meme and asked what had happened.
“He asked me to come play ball with him, but I shouldn’t have tried to run,” she said. I pointed out that perhaps her helmet-wearing days were a thing of the past.
The point of these memories is this: Becoming a mother did not mean I’d receive, as if from the stars, instructions for the job. Any notion that I’d stay one-step ahead of him began to unravel the day his young cousins taught him to climb the stairs. He’s a bright person, with a quick mind and sharp wit. By the time he was four, he was lengths ahead of me.
Just for today, I am twice his age, just as I was when he was born. That will not happen again. And at last I know the only advice for anyone is this: Trust your heart. And be kind. For all that I expected to teach him about this life, he was my first teacher in what it means to love unconditionally, opening my heart until I sometimes thought it would break. He taught me all kinds of things I’d never heard of: the Navajo Codetalkers and geography, that I should read David Foster Wallace and–most of all–stop worrying about him and his siblings.
Conor is in his second year as a volunteer for a literacy program, which matches community volunteers with elementary-school children who are unable to read, or read at grade level. Through his role as a coordinator at one school, he has forged his way to work with meaning and compassion. It is a great way to travel in this world.
Keywords: first-time mother, new parents, parenting, birthday, aging