Saturday January 26, 2013

Some words you do not expect your baby to utter. Communication is primal when deep in the Baby Cave -- coos and cries, lips smacking for milk, a tiny hand grasping in a dark bed. Language emerges slowly, syllable by syllable. In the early years I could not have imagined a future of articulate conversation with my children. Now we’ve traveled so far beyond the mouth of the Cave that my youngest has nick-named my breasts "Fred and George," after the mischievous twins in the Harry Potter books. And one morning she charges into the kitchen before Kindergarten proclaiming, "Daddy, there’s a problem with my pants!"

Said pants were too bunchy over a pair of loose long-johns. Like a pro, Daddy straightened them out fast, before a melt-down ensued. I paused to savor the miracle of having two children who dress themselves. How easy to take this milestone for granted! There were years of fussing with tiny socks and shirts and snaps, closets full of baby-toddler paraphernalia that has been given or thrown away.

The essentials of early parenthood are now obsolete. Our faithful double stroller is an old relic rusting in the shed, blocked in by the girls’ two-wheelers. I struggle to remember the elaborate rituals surrounding the baby crap I couldn’t live without: swaddling blankets, binkies, the sling, the Ergo, the co-sleeper, the swing ....

"The diaper pail. Thank god," adds my husband. We high-five in gratitude that both our offspring poop in the potty without our help.

Some days we barrel along at full speed in our busy routines. Some days it feels like a small victory getting two children to school without any yelling or punching (I pay silent homage to the multi-tasking mothers of three or more). And some days I stop and look around in amazement. How is my first-born already answering multiplication questions like, "There are seven people at the bus stop. How many ears?" How has Carmen evolved from a volatile preschooler into a free-thinking Kindergartner who ponders the conundrums of the world:

"Mommy, does fire burn metal?" "Mommy, where IS Madagascar?" "Why does peanut butter and jelly taste so good?" "How did they make the roads before there was a road there?"

I answer her as clearly I can, but eventually my knowledge of laying asphalt falters, and I marvel that my youngest has stumped me. Talking Heads lyrics circle through my brain: "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" It seems impossible that I’m on the highway driving children to ski practice when it used to be my own mother who packed eight kids into the Moose, our beat-up Suburban with the Magic Happens bumper-sticker, blasting Jimmy Cliff "You Can Get It If You Really Want" on the way up to ski at Prospect Mountain. Nostalgia is dangerous. I don’t want to be "trapped in time," as Eckhart Tolle says, compelled "to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation." Tolle writes that this compulsion "creates an endless preoccupation with past and future and an unwillingness to honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be."

Please, Mr. Tolle, tell me how we can honor the moment more. Even as I’m snuggling Ava’s lanky body at bedtime, breathing together in companionable silence, a little voice in my head keeps asking, "Are you savoring it? Are you savoring enough?" Both girls received loft-beds from their grandparents for Christmas, and their new altitude feels symbolic. Now I have to climb a ladder to reach my children. I’m not sure I like the change, but there’s no going back.

Maybe it’s a sense of wonder that grounds us in the present, our ability to be constantly surprised. When Miss Curious-George 5-Year-Old discovers a hot-pink German toy stashed in my drawer and investigates the ON button, the contraption purrs to life. "Carmen, please put away mommy’s massager," says her father coolly, without missing a beat.

Later that night we laugh freely about the incident, imagining the frank conversations we’ll have with our daughters in another five years. Humor is the balm that soothes the irritated edges of our days. If we can’t laugh and enjoy our kids, we’re missing the most important part of parenthood. We can read how-to books and search the internet and improve ourselves in parenting classes; we can worry about Tiger Moms and French moms and all the things we’re doing wrong, or we can relax and take joy in these small beings who share our lives. We can even learn from them.

When Ava writes a story called "The Warrior From the Sky," she reads me the first line in an enigmatic voice: "No one knew where she came from, no one knew who she was ..." I look at her as if she were a stranger. What luck to feel inspired by my children’s creativity! I’ve always believed language can redeem us, can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, and maybe my girls will too. Carmen names her class goldfish "Tiger Lily." She tells me she needs a scary lion to make her brush her teeth, or even better, a python. Hissing, I wrap my arms around her and squeeze and squeeze until she screams in delight. We wrestle on the savanna, so far out of the Baby Cave that its dim mouth is just a shadow behind us.

There’s so much space out here. The sky is immense and I don’t always know which way is North. But we’ll keep fixing the problems with the pants, answering the endless questions, listening quietly when it’s time to listen, and when the time comes to let them go, we’ll let them go.

Diana Whitney is a writer, yoga teacher, and mother of two in Brattleboro. This is her final column, but you can follow the progress of her Spilt Milk book at www.spiltmilkvt.com Email her at dianaspiltmilk@gmail.com.