I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I started obsessing — maybe it was around the time both of my girls were fully enrolled in middle school, which was right about the time the feeling of clutching their hands on the way to the elementary school bus stop began to fade, no matter how hard I tried to conjure it. I began obsessing about those little hands, and, more to the point, about my daughters leaving me. Even though they are only 12 and 14. Even though they still (for the most part) enjoy hanging out with us. Even though I know deep down that our kids never truly leave us, and, on the flip-side, that leaving us is kinda the whole point. Maybe it’s because their middle school is attached to the high school, so at least a few times a week, I sit in my car at pick-up, waiting for the girls to emerge, while also watching the strange species of high schoolers amble by. How can I be closer to that I think, looking at a menacing man-child — who better be the school’s linebacker, and whose only crime is that he grew up like he was supposed to — than I am to those sweet hand-holding bus stop years?
I live in anticipation of my own broken heart.
It is written in the context of parenthood in general, referring to how uncomfortably close joy and loss ride together, from the moment we swaddle those babies in their starchy pink-and-blue striped hospital blankets. But until recently, I’ve always been pretty excellent at denial, preferring to focus on stuffing the permission slip in the backpack, or registering for the right camp, or getting dinner on the table, or checking things off The List, rather than deal with questions like, say, “How much of my identity is tethered to my children?” or “What happens when they don’t need me anymore?”
Newman, our generation’s Poet Laureate of Parenthood, was just being her typical lyrical self and is most definitely not in the business of dispensing “parenting advice” in the traditional sense. But this observation (and zillions more in her essays) had the effect of a diagnosis: Now that my ailment has a name, I can figure out a way to treat it.
The way to treat this, Newman infers, without hitting you over the head with it, is not to stop obsessing. Obsessing, worrying, suffering — these are the messy realities of being a parent. It’s what we signed up for. In one essay, she discovers a strange lump on her daughter’s chest which turns out to be nothing, but before she knows this, Catherine chronicles her quick, deep spiral to devastation. Every parent knows that feeling, but I’m not sure every parent would have this to say about it: “Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose. I understand all at once the title of a Zen book I haven’t even read: Full Catastrophe Living. That’s what I’m doing. It’s the full catastrophe, and I’m in it, and if I wait for it to be over, well, it will be over.”
In other words, it occurs to me that as I sit in my car at pick-up in my existential panic — likely the most privileged strain of panic there is — I have somehow lost sight of the fact that I’m at pick-up. I’m here now. Why am I letting today be so dominated by tomorrow?
This moment of Zen was very definitely brought to you by Catherine Newman…But! The book is not all existentialism and enlightenment. Anyone who has regularly read her blog or her essays, knows how deft she is at being sentimental without being sappy, at being wise without being condescending, and, most important, being freaking hilarious. But since there may be one or two of you out there who haven’t, I thought I’d offer a mini sampler:
Catherine Newman on her kids:
I feel about the children sometimes the way I used to feel about our tabby cat, Tiny. I used to look at him blinking slowly in the sun, or lifting his hind foot to chew at his toes with his miniscule front teeth, and I’d think Why is he even living here with us? We have so little in common.
On things getting better: (For those of you with new babies, both the introduction and conclusion is devoted to this conceit, one example more hopeful than the next, but this one made me laugh the hardest)
Even though you’re older, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will all simply get out of the car and walk inside!…They will buckle their own seat belts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them from their high chairs to the floor like drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels.
There are measurable benefits to dinner-table conversation. It’s a natural check on overeating, for example. Even if you’re talking and eating at the same time, you simply can’t generate the same spaghetti-shoveling velocity that you could if you were eating silently. Plus, I’m sure it’s good for mental health, for social health, for learning how to become a good date—although, my god, I’ll miss them when there’s someone they’re dating besides us. It’s a reminder too that I have to pay attention. Those conversations when the kids are trying to tell me something but I don’t close my laptop long enough to look them in the eye and listen? Let me tell you how much I remember about those: nothing. But some of it is immeasurable too. What deep conversation gives us is time to stop and appreciate how much we have right now even as we imagine, deliriously, that it could go on forever.
Then again, we endorse some unorthodox practices about politeness. I feel for example, that when you plunk a steaming buttered ear of it on your child’s plate and he cries, “Oooooh — yum! Corn on the cob!” this is just as good as, if not better than a plain old “Thank you.” I also think that the pleasure of eating cold green salad with your fingers cannot be overestimated, and at home this is a perfectly acceptable dinnertime behavior. As is resting a comfortable bare knee against the edge of the table, the better to brace yourself while you tug enthusiastically at a sparerib with teeth and hands. (These are what we call the home-alone rules.)
On the daily hypocrisy of motherhood:
It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all — when across town from us there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies…But for now, it is autumn nuts and seeds and berries, the grapes pulled down in big buggy clusters, the skins so taut and tart they burst open and make your lips itch. Stirring them at the stove makes me too pleased with myself. I know that. I’m this kind of mother, I think happily, and then immediately flush with shame over my own vanity and falseness, given that I am also the kind of mother who lathers up her hair with one hand so that she doesn’t have to put her beer down in the shower.
And finally, on loss:
I had not pictured being an adult as the crazy derangement of joy and sadness that it’s turning out to be. The children, for example, are lost to us over and over again, their baby selves smiling at us from photo albums like melancholy little ghosts of parenthood past. Where are those babies? They are here and not here. I want to remember the feel of a warm little hand in mine, or the damp, silky weight of a naked kid in my arms straight from the bath. When I prop Birdy on my hip, she still slings a little arm around my shoulder, jaunty as a boyfriend — but she’s so heavy. The kids grow and grow, they grow right out the door! Like characters in a Dr. Seuss book about people you love and love and then they move out and leave you and go to college like jerks, marry other people, and refuse to live at home with you who love them so much, who loved them first. (Assuming you can even keep them alive that long.) Loss is ahead of us, behind us, woven into the very fabric of our happiness. I don’t wish nothing would change as much as I wish for the absence of more loss.