“Let’s go on the one that makes Mom go, ‘Wahhh!’” Ethan yelled to Chloe as they ran across the playground.
I followed my kids and stopped abruptly when I saw the slide they were headed toward. This was not just any slide. It was a tubular one that started a good ten feet up in the air and twisted its way down to the ground.
Not that one again? I thought as my chest tightened.
I had hoped my last time on it would have been just that, my last. Before I could think of a lame excuse to get out of going, my kids were on their way up the staircase. I heard the excitement in their voices as they urged me to join them. I half-walked, half-crawled up the pint-sized metal steps, managing to bump my head in the process.
At the top, we decided Chloe would go first (though she was only three and the youngest, she was the bravest of us all), Ethan, second and me, last. I watched them slide down one by one. Like butter melting across a hot frying pan, they spiralled smoothly and gracefully down to the ground. Then it was my turn. I sat on the ledge and looked down into the dim tunnel. The pounding of my heart brought me back to a different time and a different place, but just as familiar in its uncertainty.
Can I do this? Will I be a good mom?
When the nurse handed me my five-pound, 11 ounce baby as I prepared to leave the hospital, I swallowed hard. His tiny frame hardly made an impression on my arms, but the reality of the moment weighed heavily on my heart. I looked at my husband wide-eyed. “We can just take him home?” I wondered out loud.
In those first weeks after bringing Ethan home, I increasingly questioned my qualifications as his mother. I felt and looked the farthest thing from maternal sitting in my pyjamas all day with oily hair, engorged breasts and an inconsolable baby. Even with a pile of “What to Expect” books sitting on my bedside table, I didn’t have a clue as to how to stop either his crying... or my own.
In college I once took three final exams over the span of nine hours (on two hours of sleep), but that was a walk in the park compared to what motherhood was turning out to be.
If pregnancy was the midterm of motherhood, then this aftermath was my final exam. However, it seemed as if there were no right answers for this test, only possibilities. Perhaps swaddling will help your newborn sleep better. It’s possible that picking up your baby at his first cry will spoil him. Giving your baby a bottle might produce nipple confusion, etc.
But possibilities don’t give you confidence in the middle of the night as you pace the hallway for hours on end. Possibilities don’t comfort you when you’re holding a flailing, red-faced baby in your arms.
Evidence that I was flunking my exam surfaced one night when we went to a friend’s house for dinner. Soon after arriving, Ethan began wailing, his brown eyes widened in distress and dimpled hands scrunched up tight. I hid away in an upstairs bedroom to nurse and rock him. Beads of sweat dripped down my face as I tried desperately to console him, but his cries only grew louder and more desperate by the minute. Defeated, I stumbled downstairs and prepared to go home. Then a friend offered to hold him. She took him from my arms, and he calmed down immediately, his head snuggled into her chest. I felt like the worst mother.
No one had told me it would be this hard, this unpredictable or this exhausting. Or maybe some had hinted at it, but I didn’t understand the extent of it until I had lived it.
What I would eventually come to understand was that my education had only just begun. My son, the little professor, had his lesson plans drawn out. Day by day, he taught me how he liked to be held, what he liked to eat and how to make him smile. Yes, the hours were long and the studies could be gruelling. But my teacher was persistent.
I did my part to be a teachable student. I gave myself a generous learning curve. I couldn’t expect to get everything right, especially the first time around. Even the second time around with Chloe, I discovered she had her own distinct personality, quite unlike her brother. Experience replaced the nerves, but there were still new things to learn about caring for a little girl. With each child, my knowledge base grew along with the grace I showed myself. I gave up on meeting other people’s preconceived notions, as well as my own, of what a mom should be like. I did what worked for me and my kids.
Success came not in test scores, but in the little things. I revelled in the way Ethan’s eyes lit up when he saw me, the moments he leaned over and reached his Pillsbury doughboy arms out to me when he wanted to be held, the day he said his first word, “Ma...ma” in a sweet, hesitant voice. My heart swelled with delight each time Chloe grabbed my hand and led me to jump over different colored tiles on the mall floor, the moments she pulled me down to plant a soft kiss on my lips, the way she leaned her head on my shoulder when I held her. These moments confirmed I was on the right track. My teachers gave me a passing score with each loving gesture.
Now once again, my biggest supporters cheered me on. Ethan and Chloe’s shouts of encouragement rose to the top of the slide where I sat.
“Go, Mom, go!”
I peered down the tunnel, finally ready to leave the safety of the ledge. With a gentle push, I felt my body freefall. My eyes closed shut and my mouth opened wide. Wahhh! I screamed. In my panic, I pressed one foot flat against the tube to slow myself down, and almost ended up doing the splits. I managed to pull both legs together just as the slide spit me out. Ethan and Chloe greeted me with wide smiles and cheers. I laughed as a rush of adrenaline coursed through me.
Minutes later, the three of us sat on the playground structure to rest. I felt the warmth of the sun on my head and the cool metal under my bottom. The simultaneous experience of hot and cold temperatures on my body brought to mind my ride down the tubular slide. Worry and darkness had reigned in the beginning, but relief and light met me on the other side.
Such is the journey of motherhood. Fear and uncertainty on one end; joy and knowing on the other.
I looked at my kids, one sitting on each side of me. Their once chubby arms and legs, now lean and long. I marvelled at how much they have grown and how far I have come.
“Thanks for taking me on that slide,” I said with genuine gratitude. “I had fun.”
Ethan smiled. “Do you want to go again?”
“Okay!” Chloe nodded enthusiastically.
They grabbed my arms and pulled me to my feet. I groaned, and then I laughed.
And so my journey continues.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem