Moments like these are why it’s great to have a dog and a kid at the same time.
I held back tears as I left the chiropractor’s office. I willed myself not to indulge in a good cry. I’ve already cried about all this. Get over it and move on, I told myself. I should have seen the tears coming–I was already feeling fragile when I walked in. As I left the doctor confirmed: I shouldn’t be running. My attempt at getting healthy was hurting me.
Last week, pretty suddenly, I started having shooting pain in my lower back and right hip. It’s almost exactly where I had intense, immobilizing muscle spasms during pregnancy, and what led to me getting regular chiropractic treatment from then until we moved five months after my son was born. Worried the pain would escalate, I reluctantly made an appointment.
I dread doctor’s offices now because I am tired of rehashing the ways my body is not functioning properly. I’m tired of having to rate my pain. I would much rather keep ignoring it so I can do more important things, thankyouverymuch. I am also tired of the breezy advice to take better care of myself by just doing this one simple thing. Which I add to my list of One Simple Things that I wind up not doing because the list is so long. I have always been an A student and, likewise, strive to be a good patient. But since I became a mother, all my self care has been de-prioritized.
It’s not something I consciously do. It’s just that the inner voice telling me to take care of myself is a polite, quiet, hand-raising girl saying, Hey, um, maybe you should have a glass of water? And, um, maybe sit down a minute? Icing your back would probably feel good, right? And the voice she’s competing with is my son wailing “EEEEEEEHHHHHHHH!!!” and banging his head into the baby gate.
If it’s not my son, it’s someone else on my mind. It’s like my energy is controlled by a switch that says ME and OTHERS and it’s usually stuck on OTHERS.
Remember when I put taking care of myself on my THINGS I DO list? Yeah, I told you that was pretty aspirational.
I loved watching Lassie re-runs as a kid. I dreamed about having a beautiful, noble dog like Lassie. I have always been a dog person, always craved feeling tufts of fur between my fingers, wet noses pressed into my palm. Few things can cheer me more than soft brown eyes and a frenzied tail.
I am jealous when I hear about my husband’s experience being raised among collies from infancy. Growing up, my family didn’t get a dog until I was nine. Not a bad age to get a dog, but it meant that she would be the only dog our family would have, since my dad was adamant: just one. I loved her, but she was not Lassie. She was the anti-Lassie. Prone to fear biting and that most charming of cocker spaniel traits, defecating when nervous. But most of all, she was my mom’s dog, thoroughly devoted to one person and one person only.
Yet I loved dogs, and I loved her. I trained her and showed her during junior high school and it became clear when her limits were reached. At which point I begged my dad for another dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. After learning about all 250+ dog breeds, I had determined that was the one for me, and something about training and showing a dog made me come alive, even though it did nothing for Taffi but make her miserable.
That’s when I found Alfie. Or you could say Alfie found me. It’s a story like the best love stories, full of close calls, intuition, and pinch-me, too-good-to-be-true coincidences. That story cannot be done justice in a few sentences.
Suffice it to say, Alfie turned out to be my Lassie. He had a depth to him, the gravitas of an old soul. He sought connections with people in a way that inspired me. But what was most humbling was that he chose me as a companion. Because it was clear that I didn’t just go buy a dog. He was meant to be with me.
Alfie saw me through the rocky years of high school and college. When I was most unsure of who I was or who my friends were, Alfie was constant. His friendship was a blessing given to me before I could ever earn it, and it was it was offered to me anew each day. His devotion continued past college and into a new marriage and, finally, new motherhood.
The timing of his passing was no accident. It was exactly when he meant to go.
I got another dog, Butter, several years after I got Alfie. A couple months before I became pregnant with my son, Butter was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Her heart failure rapidly progressed, until I had to put her down two months to the day before I gave birth to my son. In her final months, I was incredibly emotionally fraught. I hadn’t seen it coming–her previous heart checks were totally clear and she was the younger of my two dogs. I constantly monitored her medications and her food and water intake, even taking her to work with me so that I could give her medications and give her the frequent potty breaks she needed on diuretics.
There were many sleepless nights spent listening to Butter’s labored breathing in the corner of our bedroom, wondering how I would know it was time to say goodbye and whether she or I would be the one deciding when it was time. As my due date neared, I also wondered how I could tell whether I was making a decision for her sake or for mine, because I couldn’t imagine how I would manage my emotions and attention, split between my dying dog and my first born baby.
When we were at our son’s two week old checkup, our doctor must have noticed the weary, anxious look in our eyes and told us, “Don’t worry. Once he gets to be about six weeks old he’ll start smiling and interacting with you and it will be a lot more fun.”
I looked at her and thought, But I like him now. I was tired, but I didn’t want him to change. To me, there was not a single thing wrong with him staying as he was. My love was stronger than the pain in my body, the circles under my eyes.
I was new-parent weary, but my love for him was so big I couldn’t imagine how it could get any bigger.
Before I became pregnant, I actually couldn’t imagine myself with a newborn. I thought I would be better with an older baby, one with large curious eyes and soft, squishy chub. I didn’t know what to do with squinty-eyed newborns, who seemed so fragile and apparently cried or slept all the time. But as soon as my son was born and lying on my stomach, I saw his beautiful face and all I could think was how perfect he was.
Watching a child grow is like watching a flower bloom. My son started out a tight little bud, and as he gets older he blooms out, revealing the beauty inside. As he blooms, my love stays as strong as that first day, but my appreciation for his loveliness grows.
I have a friend whose baby was born just a couple months before my son. We shared our excitement and fears about pregnancy, and then parenting once our babies were born. When our sons were just a few months old we talked about how we didn’t want them to get bigger, how we loved them so much as they were and we were weepy when they outgrew their clothes. But we discovered as our babies grew how exciting each new milestone was. How just when we snuggled our babies close and smelled their heads and thought, “Don’t grow,” they surprised us with some fascinating new development and we couldn’t tear our eyes away. Suddenly, we were cheering them, saying “Go on! Do it again!”
Nothing can prepare you for the ordinary miracle of your baby doing something for the first time. I’ve thought about why that is. All healthy babies follow the same general pattern of development. Why should it be more exciting when mine learns to roll over or crawl or walk? But as his parent, I’ve been with my son from the beginning. I’ve been on a journey getting to know him since I first saw his heart beating on the ultrasound. As his parent, my every daily activity is done with consideration for this little being that I am responsible to grow. So when suddenly he does something that he’s never done before, it feels like my world is expanding right along with his.
When my son took his first steps, even though I had been expecting it for months, I felt as though something impossible was happening. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he was spoon bending, Matrix style. It was breathtaking that he should stay upright on his own, even for a brief moment. I cried, seeing him walk. Because my baby is almost not a baby anymore. But also because I got him this far. And also because I’m so excited to see all the things he is going to do next.
So if you asked me every month of my son’s life what my favorite age was, I would always say “this one.” It’s true now, as he practices walking while holding a large ball, or uses rudimentary sign language to ask for “help”, or holds his dog’s paw while he watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I hope that no matter how difficult things get, whether I’m losing sleep because of toddler nightmares or teenage escapades, my love continues to be stronger and my appreciation richer. I hope I can always say, “This is my favorite age,” because he is my favorite boy and I wouldn’t have him any other way.
When I was in kindergarten, one of our craft projects was to make a penguin out of construction paper. It was pretty simple: black body, white belly, orange beak, orange feet. But the special twist was that the penguin’s wings were attached with metal brads, so they could twist and flap.
Our teacher introduced us to the brads and showed us how to peel the metal tabs back to secure them in place. There was a boy in my class named Brad and I thought how unfortunate it was that he was named after this weird little piece of metal. Each kid grabbed two metal brads and sat at the work tables with construction paper spread out in front of us.
I sat down at my table with three other kids and all my supplies laid out before me. The construction paper, shapes to trace and cut out, paste, safety scissors, and two brads. I quickly became absorbed in the project, cutting clean lines and making sure I had all the pieces adjusted just right. I prided myself at being very good with scissors. After I had cut out all my shapes, I looked up for a moment and realized that all the other kids at my table were almost done. Oh no! I was behind! We were supposed to be wrapping up and cleaning off our tables.
I turned back to my penguin and started gluing as fast as I could. Finally, I put the last wing on my penguin and looked at my handiwork. My teacher hovered over my shoulder. “Oh, you were supposed to use the brads to attach the wings.”
My throat tightened as I stared at the two brads still sitting on the table among scraps of paper. In my gluing frenzy, I had glued the wings on. Oh no, oh no, oh no… I immediately wanted to fix it, to tenderly peel off the wings and let the glue try and attach them again with the brads. But there was no time. We were cleaning up. My penguin’s wings would just have to dry in place, remaining immobile. I looked up to see other kids happily flapping their penguins’ wings, and I felt ashamed.
My teacher wasn’t upset with me, but I had already started berating myself for not completing the project correctly. How could I have forgotten? The brads were what this whole project was about and I forgot them. Not only had I spent more time than anyone on the project, I didn’t even do it correctly. I felt like I had let my teacher down, let myself down, and even, in some impossible way, let my penguin down. I had done it wrong.
As an adult looking back on that scene, I’m saddened that I was so hard on myself. I was in kindergarten. Was I going to flunk for not attaching a paper penguin’s wings properly? Of course not. I’m not even sure kindergartners get grades. Where was all that emotion coming from? Why do I still remember it, some 23 years later?
That incident reinforced some burgeoning fears in my five-year-old self. Even at that early age, I felt that if I didn’t do things perfectly, it meant that I was a bad person. I’m still trying to figure out where that comes from. But what’s perhaps more damaging is I also learned if I mess up, I won’t get a chance to fix it. This has lead me to live my life as though this is my one shot. I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to get things right, or catastrophe will ensue. As an adult, I need to let go of the fears I developed in my childhood of being a bad person and never being able to make up for my mistakes.
The reality is that the quality of one paper penguin doesn’t mean anything about whether I’m a good or bad person. And just like as a kid I didn’t have enough perspective to realize it, as an adult I need to remember that I still have a very limited perspective. Retrospectively, my problems may seem bigger now than at five years old. But they feel as big to me today as the penguin did for the little girl with scissors and glue.
The next time I feel stressed because I think I need to make everything perfect in my life, I need to remember the paper penguin. I need to stop and think about what I am trying to prove with my perfection and try to gain some perspective. Because in the end, what does it matter if my wings don’t flap?