He was nine pounds when I met him. Somehow I’d squeezed all nine of those pounds out of me with no medication. “Hello you!” I said, holding him in my arms as the night nurse tried to put him in the bassinet. “You should get some rest,” she said. “No, I’ll just keep him right here by my side.”
I wasn’t afraid of crushing him in my sleep like I was with his older sister. I wanted to drink him in and imprint his utter perfection alone in that peaceful hospital room at 1AM on a Saturday in September. I touched his soft cheek and searched his alert eyes for a sign he recognized the unconditional love that pulsed with my every heartbeat. Later that day, I’d be the mother of two: an infant and a toddler. But at that moment it was just him and me, numb from our mutual physical exertion. Suddenly a nurse came in, turned on the lights and pulled the curtain closed beside me as if that would allow for peace and privacy as another new mom was wheeled in surrounded by a boisterous family. Roommates: a perk of managed care health insurance. “Shhhhhhh,” someone said loudly, “Another lady is trying to sleep.” But the other mother excitedly regaled her family with every detail of her baby’s birth, while I practiced the Lamaze breaths I forgot to use two hours earlier, knowing that this was the calm before the real storm. “Hello you,” I whispered, “Who might you become one day?” and I dozed despite the din.
Truth is, I wasn’t always the best mother. In some ways it is amazing he and I made it out alive. I am dedicated but I’m easily distracted. I manufacture magic despite multi-tasking. I’m overprotective but I encourage adventure. I am fabulously flawed like every other originator of offspring I know, and my son loves to challenge my competency.
For example, there was the time I took a shower. Honestly, when you’re the mother of two or more tiny people, it seems like you can count those times on a hand, and this was one of those days when I could no longer bare the scent of myself, nor could I imagine my husband coming home from work to my greasy hair matted with spit up and my frenzied eyes ringed in puffed purple.
I planted my children in their room and closed the door. My bathroom is 6 feet away. The baby monitor was next to the shower and the hall door was closed. I implored my three year-old: “Play toys with your baby brother for two minutes right here on this rug,” I begged, "Only open the door to get mommy if it’s an emergency.”
I took the fastest shower in human history. Didn’t even dream of shaving my legs. I wrapped that towel around me with the speed of a hummingbird’s wings and stepped into the hall to see the children’s bedroom door open. My daughter stood by the also open hallway door. “Where is Jack?” I squawked! “He wanted to go out,” she replied. “What?!” I screamed as I ran through the house leaving footprint puddles on the hardwood floors, the linoleum in the kitchen like a slip-n-slide. The kitchen door was open too, and then I saw that the gardener had the pool gate propped open with a trashcan. The rumble of the lawnmower drowned out my cries as I flew toward the pool clinging to the towel wrapped around my naked body, imagining the worst scenario and there I saw my six month-old son on his knees by the pool steps, splashing his hand in the water. Another ten seconds and who knows?
A couple years passed sans near death experiences when I was folding laundry and my then three-year-old son toddled into my bedroom looking like Charlie Brown’s friend, Pigpen, with a literal poof of dust floating above his head. Hoping it was a minor concern, I asked him to show me where this happened. I mean it had only been a couple minutes since I put superhero t-shirts in his drawer and he was happily playing with Thomas the Train. But when I entered his room, it was like the Colorado Rockies in March. Every peak and every valley covered in fine, white dust. His train table, stuffed animals, books, rug, closet, shoe rack and shoes. All white. The dresser, inside the opened drawers, the lampshade and framed photos of my former angel at 6, 12 and 18 months: all covered. Every nook and every cranny. A blizzard in Burbank in June. He looked at me through frosted eyelids as I slid down the wall and broke into defeated sobs. There was only one solution that I could think of. We had to sell the house.
My husband, of course, disagreed with my assessment and, after hours of dusting, vacuuming, and swiffering, my son’s room was cleaner than it ever was or has been since and smelled powdery fresh for years. But I remain filled with fear for having left the baby powder within reach each time I’d hear a PSA about Mesothelioma.
Perhaps a year went by when my daughter came in the kitchen while I was making dinner. “Jack is rappelling up the slide with a bungee cord,” she warned. I looked out the window and caught sight of him in his boyhood Indiana Jones bliss. “Don’t be a tattle tale,” I told her. “It looks dangerous,” declared my ever-wise six year-old. I went back to chopping the vegetables no one would want to eat, but within fifteen minutes, I heard a cry outside the kitchen door and there stood Jack, his face masked in blood. The bungee hook had come free from the top of the slide and gashed him at the brow-line, centimeters from his eye. Faces bleed. A lot. The emergency room doctor concluded he was lucky to still have that eye.
To date, my family has hiked in 31 National Parks across America and my son has lept over countless boulders spanning deep crevasses. Boys will be boys, I tell myself as, in my head, I hear the rescue helicopters circling above and imagine the reporters' mics forced in my face, “What were you thinking? Are you fit to be a mother?”
But at least I tried to teach safety and calculated risk, and I’ve been known to pull over my car and threaten to call parents when I see his friends riding their bikes with helmets dangling from handle bars or perched on their heads with unbuckled straps flapping in the breeze. My fear is justified thanks to my son.
As we were loading the car en route to the airport for a hiking trip at Mount Rainier, my then ten year-old son was racing his sister on his bike just a block from our house. He flipped over the handle bars and tri-pod landed in the street, cracking his helmet. His sister carried him into the house crying. He said his arms hurt, but there were no outward signs of trauma and he seemed to recover after a little tender snuggle. We had to leave or we’d be late to the airport. But as we sat in the terminal, ready to board, I looked at his ashen face. He was clearly in pain and fearful of derailing our travel plans. I imagined being in the wilderness with no access to medical care. Clearly I should have taken the kid to the hospital. What kind of mother am I? We booked later flights. A trip to Urgent Care revealed not one but two broken arms. One in two places. Trooper that he is, my son hiked Mt. Rainier like a man in a western stick up, arms perpetually raised over his head to minimize pain and swelling. My husband and I fed and bathed him and helped with his bathroom needs for the first month of fifth grade.
The scent of baby powder has long since faded, replaced by the fragrance of sweaty soccer shin guards and volleyball knee pads, Nike high tops and discarded jerseys resting on guitar cases and flung atop a surfboard. In ninth grade the kid broke his collarbone snowboarding. In 11th grade a collision on the volleyball court resulted in a High School career-ending knee injury.
But those days of picking up Lincoln Logs and stepping on Legos fade more quickly than you can imagine when you’re in the midst of them. Last week I watched as that baby I refused to put in the hospital bassinet threw his graduation cap into the air on his High School soccer field. Now, as I look into those bright blue eyes, I know he is secure in my unconditional love. Yet when I hold those stubbly chiseled cheeks in my hands I still wonder, “Who might you become one day?” Though I know him better than I did eighteen years ago, saying goodbye as he heads out to discover that answer is going to be my toughest challenge yet.