A couple of years ago, while going through some old books for a yard sale, I came across a to-do list tucked between the pages of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It was in my handwriting, but I had trouble recognizing the things on the list. One was “clean up baby’s room.” When had I ever called Susannah’s room the baby’s room? Another item was a 4 p.m. massage. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a massage. At the bottom was “6:30–supper with NW.” I pondered that last item for several minutes, then realized suddenly that I had written the list the day Susannah was born. (We never made it to NW’s house for dinner, although we did call her at 11:30 that night to say we had a beautiful baby girl.)
I studied the list with renewed interest–a missive from the past. These were perhaps the last words I wrote before I became a mother. The handwriting was mine, yet it seemed different–neater, younger. I felt like a wholly different person from the woman who had written those words.
We all know that having children changes everything. When I was newly married, people kept telling me that. However, no one can tell you exactly what changes or in what way. I expected my lifestyle to change: fewer movies, more sit-down suppers, more plastic paraphernalia around the house. What I didn’t expect was how much motherhood would change my mind. I’m more opinionated about some things, less opinionated about others. More willing to see the gray, where before I saw only black and white.
For example, seven years ago, before my daughter was born, a spilled bowl of cereal could ruin my morning. Spilled flour, splattered tomato sauce, broken glass were irritating, time-wasting tangents. It’s not that I was ever a neatnik or a clean freak; I just didn’t like being sidetracked when I was trying to accomplish something. And I hated having any work unraveled, whether it was making a bowl of cereal or sweeping the kitchen floor.
Messes have become a way of life. Susannah spit up many times a day every single day for her first 11 months. The rocking chair was covered with splats. Her clothes were covered with stains. Even the neighbor’s white sofa got it, right after a meal of pureed green beans. Things escalated from there: Cheerios and bananas on the floor, fingerpaints in the hair and vomit on the borrowed car seat (quick, see if there are any napkins in the glove compartment). Today a spilled bowl of cereal elicits just one response: Something else has spilled; clean it up.
This lesson has been a gift, because, after all, life is full of messes. I don’t have to let a spill bring me down. All I have to do is clean it up. Making peace with stickiness is just one of the many big and little mind-changes I’ve experienced. It’s as if the contents of my brain have been spilled, swept up (along with some miscellaneous treasures from under the sofa cushions), then stuffed back into my skull. I don’t even recognize some of the things in there.
That woman who wrote the list on the morning of Nov. 21, 1993–what would she say if she could see my life today? I can almost hear her now, looking in Susannah’s closet: “What’s with these ballet slippers and tap shoes and tutus with sequins? Didn’t I say no daughter of mine would ever take ballet?”
I’d start explaining how Susannah came out of the womb loving to dance and fell in love with ballet by reading Dance, Tanya at the library. The childless me would pick up the Ariel doll and interrupt: “What is she doing here? I said no Barbies.”
“That’s not technically Barbie,” I’d say. “It’s Ariel–she has smaller boobs and flat feet. She can’t even wear Barbie shoes.” By now the childless me would be too upset to listen, so I wouldn’t even try to explain how Susannah had proposed Ariel as a reward for giving up thumb-sucking cold turkey, and how I no longer thought that one over-developed doll could undermine my influence as a mother.
And what would the childless me think if she knew I did in fact have a temper? Could she even imagine me throwing a comb across the room? Or slamming the front door so hard it bounced back open and hit the wall? (As novelist Fay Weldon so aptly put it, “The greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on believing that you are a nice person.”)
And what about all those lovely feminist ideals, stockpiled by someone who grew up reading Ms. magazine? Boys and girls are born alike; they turn out different because of the way they are raised. Parenting duties can be split 50-50, just like the chores. Mommies and daddies are the same. Barbie is evil. All of these statements were so clear to me before Susannah was born: They were purely true. Now I wouldn’t say any one of them is true or false. Each is much more complicated than a simple sentence could ever convey. The list of things I used to believe goes on: I am in control of my day. What works for one baby will work for all babies. Daycare is bad. Tipper Gore’s music-labeling ideal is crazy.
I see through a kaleidoscope now. Things that used to be black and white are now multifaceted and full of color. It’s harder to identify things through a kaleidoscope, but it’s a much more fascinating picture.