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I Would Never

I remember very little of my first few months of parenthood. Birthing a baby leaves you in such a disoriented haze of utter exhaustion that anything you do is on pure instinct. There is no thought process, mainly because your sleep deprived brain is barely able to handle the sticky tabs on your newborn's diaper, let alone form coherent thoughts. I remember sometime around day three, attempting to watch one of the Shrek movies but being unable to follow the plot. (No we are not talking about Inception. I could not keep up with Donkey and Shrek. Yes it was that bad.) I remember the night one of our close friends came by to visit and after managing a full half an hour of socializing I realized that I could no longer keep my eyes open. Rather than asking him to leave (I appreciated the visit but people without their own babies always stay too long) I just went to sleep on the nearby sofa, letting the conversation between him and Matthew be my lullaby. I also remember waking one night to nurse Maya and being so cozy and warm in my bed that I could not bear the thought of standing up again to return her to her crib. Instead I carefully slid her onto the mattress beside me, rolled onto my side and resumed sleeping. And just like that, we became co-sleepers.

Matthew and I had had no intention of sharing our bed with our baby. While pregnant, I had just assumed Maya would sleep in her Pack n' Play beside our bed until we felt comfortable moving her to her crib in her room. And she did. Until that night when she fell asleep beside me and I realized how nice it was to have her there. Also, how much easier it is to feed a baby when you have to do nothing but turn over and open your shirt. She slept better there. I slept better there. She never fell off. We never rolled over on her. (I am sure this happens but I don't know how. I was so attuned to her breathing that it would have been impossible to not notice the slightest shift.)

Maya stayed in our bed until she started moving around so much that we could no longer sleep. (I used to get woken up in the middle of the night by a swift jab to my kidney. Even as a baby, she could kick.) Then we moved her to her room. We did it gradually, often by rocking her to sleep in our arms first.  Eventually we put her in her crib awake but we would stay there with her awhile, first right by the side of the crib, then in the corner of the room, and eventually right outside her door. When she cried, we comforted her. All of this took a long time and those of you who did a faster sleep training method must be shaking your head in disbelief. I get it. We took the hard road. Like sharing our bed, we had no intention of doing things this way...until we were.

Before having a child people have all kinds of expectations. I used to take these very seriously. You're going to nurse until she is two? Good for you! You are going back to work in two weeks? Fantastic! Your child is going to be a genius? Perfect, she can be Maya's roommate at Harvard.

Now, when my friends who do not have kids yet say things about parenting I just smile. Yes I am sure  your kid will be gifted. Or they will have ADHD. Or somewhere in between. He might be a quarterback for Notre Dame. But he also might be a star dancer for the New York City Ballet. I can laugh at them because I was just as bad. I was a preschool teacher. I saw every kind of kid, from the perfect angels to the ones who ate glue, stuffed crayons up their nose and threw Legos at their classmates. (No this was not always the same child, but sometimes, unfortunately, it was.)  Worst, in my naive eyes, were the ones who screamed at their parents. Disrespectful little brats! Clearly their moms were not strict enough. I would never let my child speak to me that way!

Somewhere those moms must be laughing at me.

My child has called me a poopy head. She has said that she does not like me AT ALL, that I am always mean, that she will not love me anymore, EVER! She has hit me, thrown things at me and slammed doors more times than I can count. And Maya is a very very good child. She is sweet and sensitive and  loving. When people are sad she gives them hugs. She says wonderful things like "You are in my heart." and "I love you the most." She gives the warmest, softest butterfly kisses, ones that can instantly melt your heart. But she is four and she sometimes gets frustrated and angry and occasionally she cannot contain all that emotion and lets it out in violent storms of screaming.

Of course the most devastating cases of shattered expectations have nothing to do with misbehaving. Sometimes all you were hoping for as an expectant parent was a healthy child. I know that I was beyond lucky with Maya. I cannot imagine what it feels like to have a child with Downs Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy or any other severe disability, and I won't pretend to.  All I will say is that I imagine some expectations have to be adjusted. And that there is anger, disappointment, fear. And that the road that these parents travel is ten times harder than mine.

I have a four year old in public school and my job is to teach karate to small children. Between the two places I know a lot of parents. Some of them have become relatively close friends of mine and among us is whole collection of unmet expectations. Some of them, like I did, swore they would have complete control over their children's behavior. What we did not realize is that children are not a blank canvas that we can decorate in whatever ways we wish. Rather, they are more like small, hard lumps of clay, pliable sure, but it takes muscle to mold them. And sometimes, no matter how firm a picture we have in our head of what we want the sculpture to look like, the clay has a mind of its own. It won't make the shape you want. It droops in the humidity. It dries up and becomes a stubborn, immovable rock. In the end, what turns out is a creation that is half your shaping, half the texture that is simply innate to the clay itself.

Some of the parents I know have children with special needs; acronym kids. They have been diagnosed with some disorder, ADD or ASD, PDD or SPD. Whether or not they actually have one of these may be up for interpretation, and indeed some of these moms don't buy it. (Maybe their kid just really likes to build with blocks, a lot, like all the time. Some kids just don't like to get dirty. And really, who isn't afraid of loud sirens?) But someone, some expert, has decided that little Billy is not "normal". In many cases this is a good thing because now Billy can get all kinds of services (often free ones) which will help him deal with the world better. He will get speech therapy, occupational therapy. Hopefully he will get so much help that eventually he will be able to sit in a "normal" classroom with all of his peers and not be overwhelmed. But what about the expectations his parents had before he was born? How do they adjust to this new view of the world, so different from what they had imagined?

When Maya was four days old, a postpartum doula and lactation specialist visited us at home. She was very sweet and helpful, offering all kinds of tips to help Maya, who had yet to figure out how to latch on to my breast. After an hour of "trying", she finally concluded that perhaps Maya had a condition where her tongue was too tightly attached to the roof of her mouth, making nursing difficult. There was an easy surgery, the woman told us, just a few snips of the skin. If we wanted she could call the doctor right away and set up an appointment for later on that week. I am sure she meant well. Her expectations were such that all mothers should have the joys of nursing and by any means possible.

Needless to say, Maya did not have tongue surgery when she was a week old. Instead, she struggled with latching on for weeks and had breast milk in a bottle when we both became too frustrated. Eventually, she figured it out. I went on to nurse her until she was 13 months old.

It is hard to not have a preconceived notion of what your pregnancy, your labor and eventually your whole parenting journey is going to be like. Expectations are fine. But don't say "I would never." You will. You will use formula, even if it is only because your milk is running dry. Your child will fall off the couch once and it will be totally your fault. (Although I really was just gone for a second.) You will give your child ice cream before dinner. He will end up not passing the G&T test. (Maya missed it by one point.) One day your little angel will say something to you so horrible that you cannot believe it came out of the mouth of a child. She will get a time out, and life will go on.

If I am lucky, Maya will surpass my expectations. She will do and say things that are so amazing there is no way I could have imagined them ahead of time. Some of these things will be devastating. Most of them will take my breath away with their beauty and leave an imprint on my mind as lasting as the Sistine Chapel. For what is parenting anyway, but the creation of your greatest masterpiece, meticulously planned, delicately sketched out, then splattered with the paint that you kicked over by accident. Not what you expected. But undeniably beautiful.


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