You’ll have to indulge me my sappy moment. I took my firstborn, the guinea-pig child, up to college last week. I helped her unpack, her father plugged in the printer and mini-fridge, and we had lunch at a tin-can diner a few miles away from campus. When I dropped her off afterward, we shared a quick hug. I reminded her to call or text me every day, and that was that. It wasn’t exactly the teary goodbye a lot of parents describe when they unload their child at college for the first time, but for me it seemed a fitting way to mark the end of her childhood. We were never much for the usual rules, anyway.
When Emily was about four, she asked me why she looked orange in some of her old baby pictures. “Too many jars of stewed carrots,” I told her. “You were my guinea-pig child.” It was my blanket apology for the multitude of screw-ups I hoped to avoid with the two kids that followed.
I spent too much time at Baby Gap in those days, and Emily’s wardrobe consisted mainly of pretty little dresses, all with matching hats. After a couple of years of this, I wondered why her hair wasn’t growing. “Take the hat off,” my mother’s friend, Marge, said. So I did, and at age six, Emily got her first haircut.
When she was ten, I cut most of her hair off because she came down with lice after an overnight school trip. The whole class got it. I panicked. Later I found out about an Orthodox woman in Flatbush who uses conditioner and a fine-toothed comb to get rid of the nasty critters. Oops. “That’s what happens when you’re the guinea pig child,” I told Emily.
I avoided these particular screw-ups again, but I made plenty of others. I yelled too much about trivial things. I laughed at Emily’s inventiveness when her second-grade teacher told me that my seven-year-old had forged my signature on a test paper. I didn’t send any of my kids for violin lessons. There was no good reason for that one, except I couldn’t stand the noise.
My biggest mistake, though, was a deceptively simple one: I forgot that nothing lasts forever. No one warns you that the more unpleasant and stress-inducing aspects of parenting, like yelling at the kids to get ready for school and spending a night in the ER because a hookah bar employee gave your 15-year-old free vodka shots, are still preferable to what I’m doing now — which is looking at the empty space on the couch where Emily sat glued to the laptop for so many years that the springs broke. The “What to Expect” books in the pregnancy section should come with a “Warning” label in big pink and blue letters: “The Next 18 Years Can Kill You. Love Every Moment.”
My denial of time’s forward motion set me up for potential disaster, I know. It also created a massively cluttered home where the paraphernalia of childhood came in but never left. My house is a black hole that contains thousands of children’s books I can’t bear to get rid of. The strollers, all three of them, are still in the basement along with the Exersaucer, car seats, American Girl accessories, unopened Easy Bake Oven (I was afraid it would burst into flames) and about a hundred garbage bags filled with stuffed animals. I won’t hold a yard sale. The thought of watching strangers pick through my memories is unpalatable. I believe in holding on to what you can. The kids may leave, but a basement overflowing with stuff is evidence that once they were young and that the hopeful business of raising them occupied every inch of your existence.
When Emily was 10 days old, I dumped her at my parents’ house for a week. I was tired, cranky and, at 34, not ready for the deal I’d signed on for. I wanted my old job, where I felt productive, not this one, where I spent hours each day looking at a screaming lump in a carriage and wondering where the heck my former life went. Then I remembered that cancer and infertility have a way of making you suddenly long for things you might not ever be able to have. I was blessed. Sleep-deprived, but blessed.
A few months went by. Emily became more human and I went back to work part-time. I played Ella Fitzgerald CDs for her as she sat in her baby swing, hoping good taste would somehow sink in by osmosis. I had another baby when Emily was a year and a half old. This is not something I would recommend unless you are a truly gifted parent, which I am not. It is fortunate that my son was a low-maintenance baby.
Every night I’d read Emily bedtime stories and pile books in her bed before she went to sleep. “What’s this word?” she’d ask, and then she’d spell it. “Sound it out!” I’d yell from the living room. She did. At age two, she’d taught herself to read with zero help from me. I had another baby, a girl, and Emily moved on to chapter books. She started preschool and people began to compliment me on raising a genius kid. “Thank you,” I’d answer, offering a silent blessing that the genetic crap shoot had given Emily a stellar hand. And then, at last, I became enchanted with my daughter. For some parents it’s the first smile that gets them. For me, Emily’s ability to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at age four sealed the deal. Better late than never.
In March, when Emily got the college acceptance she was hoping for, I bought her a Carvel cake with the word “Bard” written on it. After starting out way ahead of the pack in school, she turned into a lazy and unmotivated student who spoke little in class and seldom did her homework, but got near-perfect test scores. In AP English, she ignored the required books and sat in class reading Dorothy Parker instead. I suspect that it was this teacher’s recommendation, along with an impressive SAT score, which got Emily into Bard.
A few months ago, Emily and I were talking about whether I was a good parent. She said she couldn’t really answer that because I was different from the other mothers she knew.
Other mothers taught their kids to ride a bike. I tried, I reminded her, but it became clear that she’d inherited my excessive caution, my fear of imminent doom. Other mothers encouraged their children to play in the snow rather than bringing it inside and dumping it on newspaper. (“Why stand outside and freeze?”) Other mothers didn’t wait until people were coming over to vacuum. (“You never got sick,” I reminded her.)
Other mothers encouraged decent work habits in their kids, Emily said. So did I — but when shouting and threats didn’t get me anywhere, I decided it would be best to let her find her own way, in her own time. (If it doesn’t happen quickly, she knows her career at an expensive college will be short-lived.)
When I dropped Emily off at Bard last week, she announced she’d like to ride a bike, finally, so she could get a job in the neighboring town. Don’t do it, I told her. The country roads here are dark at night. It’s too dangerous. She agreed quickly.
I’m thankful that our hyper-awareness of peril is one of the things that unites us. It’s as powerful a shared trait as our nearsightedness and our love of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. (The jazz-by-osmosis theory worked!) I wasn’t an award-winning parent, but I managed to pass along the gene for self-protection — and when you’re striking out on your own, that’s a good one to have.
I take comfort in this thought as I look across the room now and remember that my firstborn isn’t here. One minute she’s in the baby swing. The next minute you turn around and she’s gone.