To know her

My mom babysat Olive last night and when I came home my house was spotless. The dishwasher was quietly humming, Olive’s toys were stacked neatly in her toybox. My dining room table was clear. My bed was made.

The sweetest things are always, always the smallest things.

When I drop Olive off at school I wait by the playground fence as she lines up with her classmates. She runs back three or four times for another hug, another kiss, another “I love you”. When her class begins to slowly file inside she interrupts her excited chattering every few seconds to look back and wave, “Bye mummy!” she cries, “Bye mummy!”.

I miss writing about motherhood.

I dipped into the archives a few days ago and it’s remarkable how quickly things change, how foreign it seems to have a baby or even a toddler. My sister had a baby two weeks ago, a sweet little boy named Owen. I look at him, this impossibly small little bundle, and it’s inconceivable that the leggy five-and-a-half-year-old living in my house was ever that small, that quiet. Day-to-day life seemed so much more complicated back then. I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants, learning everything one step after I needed it, finally mastering something only to have it shift again.

When she was a baby, it was all-consuming. It had to be.

I spent most of my time trying to connect myself close enough to her emotional state that I could figure out what she was feeling as quickly as possible. I needed to become attuned to her so I’d instinctively be able to differentiate between cries for food or sleep or comfort. It was almost always one of those three things.

That is your first and most important job as a parent, isn’t it? To know your child.

These days it sometimes feels like I know her too well; the communication is almost too clear sometimes, too stark. She came home from kindergarten last week and suddenly had this sassy edge to her voice, her sentences often begin with, “You always…” or “I never …” or the eternal favourite, “It’s not fair that…”

Sometimes it stings, but it’s also funny because even with all of the difference between then and now, even with all of the growth both physical and emotional, knowing her is still my most important job. So in these moments, I look at her, this leggy, tall, sometimes-sassy five-and-a-half-year-old, and I try to figure out whether she’s crying out for food or sleep or comfort.

It’s still almost always one of those three things.

I think about writing about motherhood and I’m not sure what to write. It doesn’t feel entirely like motherhood anymore, it’s not such a one-sided exchange. It feels more like the rewarding work of forging a relationship. This makes it feel odd to write about. When we struggle, as everyone in relationships does sometimes, it feels like it would be invasive for me to write about it. It’s not just my story anymore. It’s not me writing about being a mother, it’s me writing about my relationship with my daughter.

She’s such a real person. She’s such a beautiful, kind, empathetic, silly, stubborn person. I took a photo of her last week and it was the first time I ever thought she really looked like me. It was her expression, more than anything else. I often search for hints of myself in her face, but I rarely find them. When she comes out of the bath with her hair wet against her head and her ears sticking out a little, she looks so much like her dad. Her eyes are my mom’s same light blue, her face is softly rounded like her older cousin’s.

She carries so much of me inside of her, she feels things so deeply. And I spent so long becoming connected to her, made it my job to know her so well, that it’s hard not to feel these things deeply, too.

Sometimes it seems like I spend all of my time trying to get her occupied doing one thing so I have the time to do another. Working from home means I struggle with the fact that we spend a lot of time around each other but we sometimes don’t spend much time with each other.

And I wonder, do you play with your kids? Do you like to? Because I’ll happily read books and do crafts and make puzzles and chat until the sun goes down.  But ask me to play, where I have to be the guy and do the voice and act out made up scenarios and I feel like stabbing my eyes out with a fork. And every time I desperately try to weasel out of doing it, I hear this quote in my head:

and I feel terrible.

And most days it feels like I’m not really there fully for her and not really there fully for work and I’m existing in this murky, unsatisfying middle state where I’m never doing anything really well. I could always be doing more, different, better. And half of me says to be gentle with myself and the other half says I have to try to be everything because she deserves nothing less.

So I sit here and I wonder, was it really more complicated when she was younger? Or were things just more immediate? Because I don’t worry about sleep anymore but I do worry about what she’ll remember about me.  I worry about what our relationship feels like from her side of things.

When the worry overcomes me completely, I try to take deep breaths and watch her sleeping face. I remind myself that my first job, my most important job, is just to know her. To know her and to love her and to give her what she needs, even when she doesn’t quite know she needs it yet.

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  • Reply Samantha Pereira May 9, 2018 at 4:19 PM

    Yep… sounds about right! X

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 9, 2018 at 11:25 PM

      Haha – thanks, Sam! <3

  • Reply Lala May 9, 2018 at 4:39 PM

    This hit me as hard as the sleep blog you did years ago. My daughter has just turned 5 and everything you wrote was like someone had read my mind. I struggle that she’ll be an only one due to my body being so broken during her labour but to hear another mother thinking the things I do and experiencing the same is a really comforting experience x

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 9, 2018 at 11:25 PM

      I’m so glad this resonated with you. It’s so comforting for me on this end, too, to send these things out and hear my same sentiments echoed back. Endlessly reassuring and makes me feel strangely warm, too. We’re in this together – even if it is just virtually!

  • Reply Anonymous May 9, 2018 at 4:44 PM

    Hit me right in the feels. It happens so fast.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 9, 2018 at 11:22 PM

      It really, really does!

  • Reply Sara May 9, 2018 at 5:16 PM

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who wants to stab my eyes out with forks when it comes to ‘playing’. Not only do I not enjoy it a lot (I am also a crafts and books and adventure-prone mom) but Auguste just spends the entire time saying ‘No, not like that. You’re doing it wrong.’ How is that motivating, kid?!?

    And yes – always a jack of all trades, master of none. I feel forever in the middle of 8,000 tasks (being a mother, working, fixing our house, weeding the GD yard) that will never be done and definitely will never be ‘perfect’. Which makes me itch. Ugh. The human condition is infuriating. Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone, through both this post and the accompanying comments. <3

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 9, 2018 at 11:22 PM

      OMG yes the micromanaging of the play! When we DO play I constantly have to stop and say, “I get to decide what I say and whether I saw that thing or not and how I react to it!” There’s an incredibly complex set of lines and stage directions coming from this kid, and man oh man, it’s something. Thank you so much for commenting. I love hearing from you guys.

      • Reply jamie May 11, 2018 at 12:28 PM

        Just be aware this is a universal part of play for children, developmentally appropriate, and one thing they need: there’s not a lot of opportunities for them to be in control of how things happen in their world, so during play, they need permission to have 100% control as long as it’s safe (and not hurting any other children’s feelings). It can be maddening, but if you can reflect on the % of the child’s day when they are having to comply with adults’ requirements, then maybe it will seem a little less ridiculous that they’re wresting this opportunity to be in charge.

        Also, when you are a very careful observer of their play script at these times (you’re just an actor on their stage, and they’re directing, so listen to the script!) you may notice they are reenacting whatever is challenging for them, or recent experiences where they felt a loss of control, or even just confused, and it can feel reassuring to know you’re facilitating healing, healthy expression, and exploration (a la thought experiments). Even though it is annoying.

        But if you *are* too annoyed by it, it’s not a good idea to play with them in that way at that time; better to let them play with another child or their animals/pretend characters. And you should not feel bad if now’s not the time for you, as long as you are making time to connect each day. You really do NOT need to be your child’s playmate. They need you to be their source of unconditional love, and they need play, but they don’t need play to come from you (at least not most of the time).

        • Reply Madeleine May 11, 2018 at 4:06 PM

          I’ve noticed Olive acting out scenarios in play time that she’s been thinking a lot about in real life but the second part…whew!

          I’ve honestly never thought about things from this angle, that in play, kids have control in a way they never do in real life. Thank you so much for your insightful comments, Jamie! You’ve given me so much to think about.

  • Reply Belinda May 9, 2018 at 7:57 PM

    LOVE this piece!! As I lay here co-napping with my 6mth old Owen, having just dropped Mr 3.5yo at childcare, those worries and ruminating thoughts about my relationship with my sons run deep, and in different ways for each of them at their different stages. I do play with my son, I follow the ‘script’ that I’m assigned and watch as his imagination unfolds and plays out. But I too know the ‘middle state’ very well… it always brings Annabel Crabb’s quote to mind, ‘the obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, whilst raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.’

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 9, 2018 at 11:14 PM

      What an incredible quote. It’s so true.

  • Reply Fee May 10, 2018 at 12:00 AM

    Had just been feeling many of these thoughts today!! Working from home is challenging and hard for all. My daughter was playing Mum this week and it broke my heart when she was telling her Teddy’s that she couldn’t play because she was “busy working”

  • Reply Anonymous May 10, 2018 at 10:16 AM

    Just perfect. Thank you. xoxo

  • Reply melanie (@meli_mello) May 11, 2018 at 11:02 AM

    I’m not into playing either. But I am into reading and sometimes into board games and I have three daughters so I tell them they can play with each other. Your words are beautiful. Thank you.

  • Reply jamie May 11, 2018 at 12:10 PM

    There’s an excellent (and very short) little book called “The Play’s the Thing” which talks about adults’ roles in children’s play, and only one of them is as playmate, most of them are not. I recommend this book to anyone who thinks in order to honor a child’s very real need for play that you have to play with children in their way. Most adults seem to feel the way you do, and you don’t need to feel bad about it! You are not a young child anymore, and that’s just the way it is—the same stuff isn’t fun for you anymore. There are so many ways to listen, and observe, to understand what your child is communicating through their play scripts, without you having to be the playmate.

  • Reply Deb Calderon May 14, 2018 at 9:04 AM

    Well written and really interesting. If you ask people my age if their parents played with them, the answer is probably no or not much. mostly because there were hordes of other kids about. My mom didn’t play with me, but she was so much fun – and I think that is important – the fun.

    She made up stories, she let us cook with us and she did lots of games, inside and out. One of her favourite games was usually at the beach. It was called “The First One To” (you might know this game) Then we had to go and look for impossible things – like The First One To find an acorn shell that looks like a boat (probably in a season where there were no acorn shells) or The First One To find a blade of grass longer than your arm. This was a brilliant game, we loved it, we were competitive and I think my mom would just relax for long periods while we went hunting.

    Anyhow, as long as kids have fun and do play with friends – might that not be enough? No need to stab out any eyes.

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