Book Excerpt from It Takes a Mother to Raise a Village
by Colleen Down
To order the book visit www.ittakesamom.com.
I Didn’t Picture It This Way
Steve and I were newly engaged and very much in love on that Sunday afternoon when we drove up into the mountains. With pen and paper in hand we began to map out the rest of our lives together. As we sat overlooking the valley we could see it all before us-a lovely home, a late model sports car, a successful career, and our large family gathered around the fireplace in matching sweaters. We were young, optimistic, and very goal oriented.
I saw myself, like the mother in American Baby magazine, in a flowing white negligee with my hair pulled up in a loosely held bun. I could see my children sitting in a garden of flowers playing with bunny rabbits. Our marriage would be a state of perpetual bliss. We would wake up and jog together in the mornings. I would be size seven forever. We had it all down on paper but more importantly we could see it all in our minds.
Ten years later we pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of the night. I began trying to clean up throw-up off of two children with a box of cold baby wipes while Steve did the best he could to get the big chunks out of the car seat. I clenched my teeth and tried not to scream, “THIS WAS NOT THE WAY I PICTURED IT!”
On another day, as I sat in the family shuttle van waiting for the traffic light to change, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I was wearing the official yellow shirt of the den mother of Cub Scouts of America while eight little boys threw pine cones at each other with radio Disney blaring in the background. “THIS WAS CERTAINLY NOT THE WAY I PICTURED IT.”
For one thing my color code says I am an autumn, and yellow is not even on my color palette! And what happened to my sports car or at least a cool SUV? Then there was the family portrait around the fireplace. I cannot find matching socks for seven children let alone matching sweaters. It would be more likely that all nine planets would line up in a straight row than it would be for me to have all of my children’s hair cut, new clothes and someone without a bruise above their eye in a family picture.
As a young bride I had not pictured myself stooped over the heater vent with the squirming goldfish in my hand trying to coax my son’s garter snake to come out. As a college sophomore, so excited about learning new things, I didn’t realize that my window on the world for the next twenty years would be “Picture, Picture.” Mr. Rogers, Mr. Mcfeely, and I would watch together as I learned how balloons are made, where graham crackers come from, and what to expect when you go to the dentist.
As a young mother with two quiet little girls, I hadn’t envisioned myself on a hot August afternoon with 100 other little boys digging through bins of pads, helmets and athletic supporters outfitting my son to go to war. When I was a teenager, with the world by the tail, did I ever think that I would be anything but the world’s coolest parent?
I guess it was during those teenage years that I first began to picture myself as a parent in the first place. It was my junior year of high school, when in our home-ec class my teacher gave us the unique assignment of carrying an egg around so that we could “experience” parenthood. My first child was fragile, I will have to admit, but he never cried, he never talked back, and he did not tell me he wasn’t tired when I told him to go to bed.
From birth to his untimely death on a wooden church pew he only cost me about 12 cents. As my daughters entered junior high home-ec, the teachers had decided that perhaps an egg did not give them a realistic view of motherhood. So my girls had to carry a ten-pound bag of flour, dressed in a newborn romper. This child at least gave you the backache associated with motherhood, but I never heard it yell from bed after it was put down that it was hungry. It never once had to be taken out of church kicking and screaming. And I never heard him say that all the other bags of Gold Medal got to stay out until 1:00 a.m. At around $2.89 he cost only slightly more over the course of his life.
Well the school janitor must have gotten tired of sweeping splattered babies up off of the floor because this year my daughter brought home Baby Think It Over. This is perhaps as close to a baby as you can get and not have stretch marks to show for it. Baby Think It Over costs a little more, at around $400.00 so you are not going to leave it out on the front lawn.
It looks like a real baby, cries when it needs attention, wakes you up in the middle of the night to be fed and must be restrained in a car seat. If you hit her or let her head snap back it records the data in her internal computer so that your teacher can dock your grade. I don’t know though if Baby Think It Over is the answer to the teenage pregnancy crisis in this country. Somehow I am not sure if carrying around a doll for a week is going to squelch a lot of raging hormones in the back seat of a mustang. Unless perhaps, while the child development class is carrying the babies, the football team all has to leave school and get jobs that pay at least $2500 a month to help feed those dolls.
I am not sure what my daughter learned the week she carried Baby Think It Over, but Steve and I thought it over and decided that we weren’t ready to be grandparents yet, especially since we still have one in diapers. As we were leaving to go out to a movie recently, I handed our youngest over to the girls and said, “Here, it’s Baby Think It Over Some More and this one poops.”
The advantage (or disadvantage) to being the oldest in a large family is that you have a general idea what parenthood is about at a relatively young age. I remember watching a popular talk show with my eleven-year old daughter. The subject was teenage pregnancy. She looked over at me sitting on the couch with my large, bulging stomach days away from delivery and said, “Don’t worry Mom, it’s not going to be a problem.”
Carrying an egg or bag of flour obviously does not give us a real picture of parenthood. I know I didn’t have an accurate picture as I sat on the side of the mountain before I was married. A few hours before my first child was born a well meaning nurse came into my room and hung up a picture of a baby for me to focus on. It might as well have been a picture of a Martian because at that particular moment all I knew was that some alien was causing me excruciating pain.
It was in the next few moments though that everything I had ever pictured about motherhood changed. I couldn’t in my wildest dreams or imaginations ever have imagined the joy and wonder I would feel as that firstborn baby was laid on my stomach. How, in an instant, you can bond with this little stranger is hard to describe. With each baby that has come into our home the wonder has only intensified. It is like falling in love over and over.
Can any child development class teach you those feelings that a mother has for a child? Can any LaMaze class prepare you for that bond you feel moments after birth that will last through a lifetime? Before you are married you watched new parents with humor and perhaps a little arrogance. You watch your friends who have children before you become so wrapped up in their children and so excited about each little development in their little darling’s life. You wonder if they even have a life anymore.
Secretly you make a pact with yourself that you will never be like that. Then you become a parent and as if by a swirling whirlpool you are sucked right in. Their first steps are so thrilling. You call the grandparents with each new development and when they learn to say MaMa and DaDa you know that your child is truly one of the most brilliant to have ever been born. You learn quickly that the greatest joys of parenting are found in the little everyday moments.
I believe that as women and probably men too, our greatest cause of unhappiness is unfulfilled expectations. In other words when life just does not go the way we pictured it. We all want so badly to be in control of our lives that when the turbulent winds of change come or when other people don’t act in a way that we want them to, we are left feeling frustrated and miserable.
There is a scene in the Neil Simon play Lost in Yonkers where the main character, Belle, is about to break the news to her family that she is going to get married. Now Belle is a little slow but she is still able to function in society. As she waits for the moment to break the news, she is getting more and more nervous. When her brother comes into the room she wants him to sit in a certain chair but he insists on sitting in a different one. They begin to argue back and forth as to which chair he is going to sit in and Belle becomes more and more exasperated. At this point her brother snaps and asks her, “Why can’t I just sit in this chair?” Near tears, she blurts out, “Because, I didn’t picture it that way!”
Oh how I could relate to Belle at that moment. This line from the movie has become an inside joke between my sister and I. Whenever we are having a particularly stressful day and things are not going exactly as planned, we pick up the phone and say, “This is not how I pictured it.” It is so important that we have goals and direction in our lives. We must plan for the future or we become like little boats on a storm-tossed sea going whichever way the winds take us. Read any self-help book on the market, and there are many, and you will quickly learn how important visualization is. We must have in our minds a clear picture of where we are going and what we want out of life. We must be able to see our future. We must dream our future if we ever want it to someday be a reality.
Our dreams are like the perfect family portrait hanging over the fireplace. Retouched to perfection, everyone dressed in their very best, each person in perfect harmony and balance. This portrait will someday become a priceless family heirloom and long after we are gone it will continue to be passed on to future generations. Framed and on canvas it will leave a legacy to our posterity. We all look forward to getting pictures back from the photographer.
Obviously, many a photo studio has capitalized on this weakness which all parents have. They lure us in with their free sitting fees knowing that as soon as we see the complete package there will be no way that we will be able to turn down any of the pictures of our precious babies. Where we had only intended on buying the six dollar and ninety-five cent package we end up spending fifty.
At home, sitting on the couch, we then look over the pictures a hundred times, buy frames to match and send pictures to all of the grandparents. Looking at these professional photographs, we can see in our children’s eyes hope for the future and the joy they have brought us in the past. Those moments frozen in time on genuine Kodak paper remind us why we love being mothers.
Our everyday life however is more like snapshots in the family album. While every family will have one or two perfect portraits, we have hundreds and hundreds of snapshots. These are the spontaneous moments, which we capture and then relive over and over again. If our dreams are portraits then our memories are snapshots. Some we want double prints of but others are overexposed and end up in the trash can. Some are picture perfect, but if we are unaware of them we miss the moment and lose them forever.
There are some pictures which, when relived, bring tears and some which cause us to smile over and over. Some fade with time and some we guard carefully as they become more and more precious with the passing years. The key is to always have our camera handy, especially the camera in our mind. How often do we say to ourselves, “Oh, I wish I had my camera?”
Somehow, in just saying it, we seem to be able to engrave the moment a little more indelibly in our memory. Sometimes having a camera can turn a crisis moment into a memory. When your little boy comes running inside covered from head to toe in mud, you either grab your camera and make it a memory or cry and make it a crisis. Sometimes it takes another family member’s perspective to capture the perfect picture. Perhaps the greatest gift that teenagers bring to the home is a new and fresh outlook on life. Just as we are beginning to settle into life our children become teenagers.
And teenagers look at life through their MTV lenses. Sometimes it is off balance. Sometimes it is out of focus. It may jump from one thing to the next, but it is always full of action and fun. One night my girls wanted to go out and do something and I said, “Not tonight girls, it’s already 9:00.” Their reply was, “That’s just the point, Mom, it’s only 9:00 so let’s do something.” It is all a matter of perspective.
These snapshots in time are the ones that we look at over and over. Then as families gather back together over the years many late night conversations around the table will begin with the words, “Do you remember when.?” As we develop the habit of capturing the small moments and find joy in the seemingly routine days we will find that gradually we are experiencing more and more joy in our motherhood.
During particularly stressful times it may be necessary to get out the zoom lens and capture the small details like the fact that all your children are playing at someone else’s house!
In the family album of my mind I have a couple of snapshots that are favorites of mine. One I took early last summer sitting in my backyard. The sun was just beginning to set and the sky was full of pink, purple and hazy clouds. My rose bushes were all in full bloom and I could smell their fragrance in the air. The night was warm and the grass was freshly mowed. My three-year old was sitting in the grass eating strawberries out of the garden and the baby was on a blanket. Our parrot (who 98% of the time is on the verge of becoming dinner) was perched on a branch whistling and the bunny rabbit was running in the grass. For a few precious moments everything seemed perfect in the world.
Another snapshot I treasure was taken several years ago when the Hale-Bopp comet passed by. It seemed like everyone had seen it but me. So at four in the morning my husband woke me up and took me outside. It was so perfectly still and quiet at that hour. Still and quiet are two feelings I rarely experience. We stood outside looking at the sky for a few minutes contemplating our place in the universe.
I have snapshots in my mind of sleeping children, nursing babies and the magic of Christmas Eve. There are those of walks on the beach with my boys looking for starfish and seashells, girls in white dresses (and toe shoes), and giggling toddlers wanting to be pushed higher in their swings.
The key to our success as mothers can be found both in portraits and snapshots. We can picture the moments in our mind and then do all we can to make those dreams realities and when things don’t go as planned we grab our disposable camera and take a snapshot.
There are certain skills that we must develop as mothers. We must be able to remove splinters, slide a tooth out from under a pillow, and know how to properly dispose of kindergarten art projects. But there is no skill more important than being able to roll with the punches.
This point was vividly driven home to me on a cold January morning many years ago when my son Andy was born. It was my third pregnancy and I awoke about 4:00 in the morning with that now familiar backache which indicated these were no longer just the Braxton-Hicks contractions. It was still two weeks until my due date but I had already spent the last two weeks in bed because my blood pressure was escalated so I was anxious to get up and get back into a routine.
I waited until everyone else began to stir and then started making arrangements for someone to watch my two little girls. The next day would be my oldest daughter’s birthday. I certainly hoped my labor wouldn’t be so long that they would share the same birthday. By about nine we were on the road to the hospital. With the exception of my blood pressure going up towards the end of my pregnancy it was a very normal pregnancy and after three hours of fairly intense labor it was a normal delivery. By noon we had our first little boy.
Both of my girls had been chunky little things weighing in at around eight pounds. This little guy seemed tiny at only five pounds and he was a little more wrinkled, but otherwise he appeared healthy. He was swaddled up in a warm blanket and I held him close to me for the next hour while we called all the grandparents and told them that they finally had a grandson.
Then a rather unusual thing happened in that my pediatrician came in. With my other girls the pediatrician had come in the morning when he was making his rounds and gave me the report that everything was fine and that I should come in for a two-week checkup. Oh well, this was a new hospital and maybe they did things differently. He took my baby and I motioned to Steve to go with him while I rested. A few minutes later Steve returned holding our little boy in his arms. Now Steve has a face, that for better or worse, expresses every thought he is thinking. We joke that he will never be able to have an affair because I will be able to read it on his face the minute he comes home.
At this particular moment when he walked through the door I knew immediately something was not right. He came over to the bed and sat down and with tears welling up in his eyes told me that our little boy had Down Syndrome. They say that you can only think one thought at a time but right then a thousand thoughts filled my mind. How could they tell?
What had I done? .I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I had never done drugs. Was it the cold medicine I had taken? Wait, didn’t this just happen to older women? I was young. How could I take care of him? I now had three little children under three and this one with special needs, how could I do it? Then there is the question that screams out above all others, why me? Why us? And excuse me, was this a warped joke of some kind? Our last name is Down. Should we change our name?
Through all the questions the tears began to fall on that precious baby I held in my arms. He was my son and nothing could change that. I had carried him for the past nine months and for the past hour, as I had held him near my heart, he was my perfect little baby.
Finally I found words and said, “So what, we’ll just take him home and love him like the rest.” Later that evening with little Andy safe in the nursery I took a shower and as the water washed away my tears I sobbed and sobbed.
The next day, Steve came and picked me up. I gathered my things and we went home to a new adventure. I quickly learned a new vocabulary of words like “early intervention,” “stimulation” and “heart murmur.” At the same time I had to teach friends and relatives that the one word that they had to remove from their vocabulary was the highly offensive word, “Mongoloid.”
I struggled as Andy, with very low muscle tone, learned to nurse. I spent many sleepless nights with him under the ultra violet lights while we got his bilirubin levels down. But in most ways he was just another baby. He ate, he slept, he needed to be changed and the girls were thrilled with a little brother who was tiny enough to sleep in their doll bed.
During this time I was going to the doctor every morning so he could monitor Andy’s heart. In our doctor’s waiting room he had a beautiful picture of his family. There he was, a successful doctor and his lovely wife, surrounded by their children, all in matching sweaters. I thought to myself with tears very near the surface and my heart aching, I guess we will never have a family portrait made because this is just not the way I pictured it.
I must remember that day so vividly because now, many years later, I have to smile to myself that I ever had such a thought. What would our family portraits be without Andy? He has made our family what it is. He has taught us all to look at life through a different set of glasses and roll with the punches.
His strong spirit and unfailing determination have molded our family in ways I could never have imagined sitting in the doctor’s office that day. We may never have matching sweaters but Andy has knitted our hearts together. No, life hasn’t gone exactly as I pictured it so far but with the albums and albums of memories and the funny moments he has brought into our lives, I am glad it hasn’t.
As mothers, we are the ones who clean up spills and wipe up messes. When our dreams lay shattered on the floor and our hearts are breaking, we are the ones that can pick up the pieces, glue them together and put them back up on the mantle. I have seen this in strong women all around me.
I saw it in my neighbor who made the six hour round trip every week to visit her two boys who were in prison (while the rest of the village sat and wondered what had gone wrong).
I see it in the women who never dream of being grandmothers when their daughters are only fifteen who then welcome new children into their homes (while the village goes tsk tsk).
I see it in the mothers who do dream of being grandmothers yet do not have grandchildren because their own children have chosen different lifestyles.
I see it in the talented, gifted women I know who have put their own dreams on hold to devote their lives to their children (while the village says they must be crazy).
I know of so many women who dream of children of their own but then unselfishly put that dream on the shelf and raise another’s child as their own (and the village says thank you, thank you). Most poignantly I see it in mothers whose dreams and hearts are broken when they must lower a child into a grave and then get up the next morning and carry on.
I guess no life ever goes totally as expected. I just hope that on the day I die I will go with a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye and a heart full of memories. I hope then that I whisper to myself, “I’m glad that my life wasn’t totally how I pictured it.”
To order the book go to www.ittakesamom.com.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.