My son Henry, my youngest child, cannot be ignored.
He seduces you easily, with his grins and giggles. I think it’s more about grasping (desperately) for attention than being naturally good-natured. He is malleable. He knows how to conform to standard norms of adorability.
At ten month old, Henry doesn’t crawl. He scoots. He sits upright and scoots, moving forward or backward with relative ease. Occasionally he pushes forward with too much force and falls backwards, thwacking the back of his head. I suppose I know deep down he doesn’t have the coordination to move on all four limbs. But I like to think that he chooses to scoot around upright because he doesn’t want to be crawling around, underfoot and easy to miss.
Henry just wants to be in the mix. So badly. His older sister is so full of vim and vigor and movement. Boisterous. Full of demands. Wont to suck all the oxygen out of the room. Henry gets a quarter of the attention, the leftover bits of my energy and scattered contemplations.
I don’t know how to re-balance things more evenly. I feel my love is even; I love both my children equally. But how do I distribute my time and my interactions more equitably?
Most days, I dismiss this thought. I tell myself that’s life, or it’s unimportant, or that when Henry can walk and talk, it will be different. Then things will be equal. But somehow, I think that perfect equity or impartiality is an unreachable standard. Especially when I look at my husband and his relationship with his mother.
He’s the youngest of three children (two older sisters), and his mom has moved cross-country, coast-to-coast twice in the past 3 years to be in the same environs as his middle sister and her husband and their two children. Washington state to Vermont back west to Oregon. There are plenty of practical (and impractical) reasons for these moves: favoritism and regionalism and Covid and the fact I set her teeth on edge.
In the past sixteen months, we’ve all been through the wringer with Covid 19. Office closures and shelter in place mandates. Quarantine orders from daycare. Zoom calls in sweatpants and unbrushed teeth. Giving birth to my youngest child, my son Henry, in a Pandemic. No maternity ward visitors. My eldest child, Margot, met her younger brother mid-meltdown during our car ride home from the hospital. Her face was streaked in tears and Chicken nugget grease and howls of indignation. Henry didn’t meet most of the family until he was 8 months old, and I say meet as in being held and handled and cuddled and cooed over in the cloying way one fawns over a new baby. Over the first few months of life, a few of his great-aunts came by to admire him from the front stoop, or indoors from 6 feet or more away.
He has yet to meet his grandmother, cousins, and aunts (all on his dad’s side of the family), and I yearn desperately for those connections.
While we are three months post vaccinations, no travel plans are imminent.
When it comes to Covid precautions, I would place my husband’s family in the top 0.10% percentile of diligence and risk aversion. No unnecessary travel, no vacations, no indoor gatherings, no going mask-less ever. Post-vaccine, their rigorous standards have not loosened (although Michael’s mom and his middle sister and her family of four have moved from Burlington, Vermont to Portland, Oregon in recent weeks). There are Covid variants. Recalcitrant non-vaxxers. And we are far from herd immunity.
In a Zoom call yesterday morning, my husband’s mom (“The Grandma” who has achieved 14th level inner-circle deity status) suggested she might have a free weekend, at some point within the next couple of months, to visit. My husband suggested she come longer. “Don’t feel you have to stay shorter on our account. We’d love to see you for as long as you can come. A longer visit would be nice since we haven’t seen you for two years.”
He was told to not exaggerate. “It’s been 19 months, not 2 years.”
I’ve squandered hours of my life trying to make my kids more adorable and more appealing to others – within their own family.
And I’ve simmered and stewed, internally, over off-handed remarks criticizing my parenting.
- “Is that another new dress?”
- “Riding around in your car in the driveway? What, are you a rich kid?”
- “Princess Margot, is that a new [fill in the blank]?”
- “Family pajamas? As long as you’re not buying them from that [ridiculously expensive brand]…”
Of course the list of my own verbal offenses must run at least three times longer. Careless, thin-skinned people are apt at ruffling feathers. And not always blindly.
But the problem with thin-skinned people is we obsess and re-obsess over words. Memory slices sharper than any actual occurrence.
And I’m always deciphering words and gestures and reasons why my children are less loved. Why is their company a “nice to have have” attribute, but not a prerequisite? Why is their absence never a dealbreaker?
And why, for the love of God, is it that 19 months without seeing my children feels like 19 months? Not like an eternity, or even 2 years?
After much breast-beating, I’ve realized it’s not just about family members having their favorites. That’s just one aspect. And shedding light on (or outright shaming) favoritism will solve nothing.
Because I’m the asshole in this equation.
I set my husband’s family’s teeth on edge. I can think of dozens of awkward exchanges or conversations I’d like to retract. (Which means there are hundreds of them.) I perturb. I unbalance. I unsettle.
And screaming at my husband, while his mom sat feet away drinking tea, could not have helped. I had just been released from the hospital. It was 8 days after my C-section, while our daughter stayed behind in the NICU. There had been many complications with my delivery. When my husband explained to me that the home nursery was unfinished (with exposed wires and strips of raw wood and extension cords everywhere) because he had been “tired” –while sleeping at home in his own bed every night with his mother there to cook his meals and clean — I lost my ever-loving mind. Vulgarity-laced self-righteousness doesn’t win anyone any points.
But exiting memory lane and fast-forwarding to this evening, my husband has suggested I just call up his mom and tell her to come be a grandma, even if it means discomfort, or outbursts, or fits of awkwardness. Because life doesn’t afford us enough time for other alternatives. Four weekends a year (one visit per quarter), over the next ten years, isn’t enough time to shrug off this mantle of anxiety and stress and discomfort.
I think about what I would say, or how I should say it. In a letter or email or text. In my inner monologues, every sentence I compose is heavy – loaded with indignation and insincerity. Things that I want her to change, for the kids’ sake, that would also benefit me. And that feels wrong. I need to disentangle my kids’ interests from my own, yet they are so hopelessly enmeshed. And since I can’t separate them, saying anything feels wrong.
But maybe that’s what motherhood is. Advocating for your children’s interests (which are always intertwined with your own) in the best and cleanest way you know how.
I’ve thought about suggesting my husband take the kids and go out to Oregon for an extended visit while I stay at home. Or of us renting a room at a lovely hotel down the street – for her or for us because either way, it solves the same problem. Or I could conveniently be going out of town, but tucked away, in hiding, at my brother’s place 20 miles out.
But all those scenarios seem inauthentic.
And tonight, there are several sentences I know to be true.
Hemingway says you only have to come up with “one true sentence” and “write the truest sentence you know”.
Today, I’ve got five.
#1 — I’m a total thin-skinned, blue-streaked mess of nerves and anxiety and volatility and impulsivity and yearning and excitement and sometimes good intentions;
#2 — I don’t want to hide, in plain sight of my children;
#3 — I know how amazing it is for Henry, sitting upright, to scoot himself across the floor to you with arms stretched wide, eyes alit, and giggles erupting;
#4 — I know that at times I’m going to spoil my kids, and fail them, and corrupt their personalities beyond (societal) redemption;
#5 — I know that missing Henry’s butt-scoots and Margot’s tea parties–for 19 months or for 2 years–would feel like an eternity.
And I could add a #6 true thing I know, or rather the truest thing I hope I know: sometimes inaction is the best deliberate course of action. And it’s good to teach your children how to let things be, because life does not offer an immediate resolution for everything.