Older moms? I hate that phrase. Those two words linked together clobber my optimism. “It’s got to be hard caring for a baby…you know, being an older mom.” At least a dozen friends and family members have made this statement to me, some more than once. At forty five, am I so old, doomed to cane and crone-isms rather than funk and fun?
A year and a half ago, when pregnant with Mikah, I read an inspiring quote on the website, “A Child After 40,” by a forty-eight year old mom of three: “I do cartwheels on the sidelines of my kids’ soccer games. I stay up late with them watching music videos. I can dance most women half my age off the floor.”
“HURRAH!” I cheered as I read her post, determined to be like this anonymous woman from Minnesota, spry, witty, and untamed by any amount of years.
Then I birthed Mikah.
I’ve never before encountered a baby like Mikah. I’ve run into some children who seem similar, and they’re either training for the Olympics or headed for juvie. Mikah is an ever-blazing fireball of motion and endeavor. Day and night. Danger delights him: knives, matches, electric outlets, and batteries are his toys of choice. Now that he’s walking and climbing, heights and slick angled surfaces entice him, too. Since he’s been born, I’ve averaged three to five hours of sleep a night, sometimes less.
The first year of Mikah’s life I was able to keep up; adrenaline kicked in and burned high through all four seasons. But as the months roll on into a new year with little change, I’m undeniably running out of energy. Fatigue is the saboteur of fun and funk, and as they fade within me, I do feel old, used-up and scared: What, dear gods, have I done? Are the naysayers right, that I’m too old to care for a baby? OH NO!
Of course, I can’t let this kind of mind-babble get to me. I’ve got to dump the label of “older mom,” which cruelly erodes my confidence. Mikah has more energy and is more daring than any of the other kids in this household combined, and that’s the issue I need to address, not my age. Age, actually, is an asset here. I know better how to let go of plans and ideals rather than to fight the steady eroding of all I thought I needed: sleep, style, and solitude.
I have zero interest in complaining about my son or whining about the challenges of parenthood. What I seek is ways to deal with my life successfully. Mikah is my Jedi Master, pushing me along paths of intense discipline and endurance. I am determined to pass the test.
This last week, as Mikah relentlessly exploded into one vigorous activity after the other, rather than screaming in my head, “Oh my god, oh my god!” I tried to be more of a quiet witness to what was happening with him and our family. Three truths slowly sifted to the surface of our domestic life, and I’d like to share them, in part to keep me aware of them and also, hopefully, to help other moms with exuberant babies.
Surrender: Kids come to us to break us. Their job is to shatter whatever self-images we have fashioned of ourselves and force us to live bare of ego. From there, we re-begin the process of self-creation, this time as a “we” rather than an “I.” The process isn’t easy. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, describes it well:
It’s as if you just looked at yourself in the mirror, and you saw a gorilla. The mirror’s there; it’s showing you, and who you see looks bad. You try to angle the mirror so you will look a little better, but no matter what you do, you still look like a gorilla. That’s being nailed by life, the place where you have no choice except to embrace what’s happening or push it away.
Reading Chodron’s books, I recognize the importance of letting life form us. Western civilization is built on the human intent to shape and control ourselves and our surroundings, but parenthood demands another way. Exuberant children undo just about every castle we build. Look at how energetically they push a toy tractor through an elaborately decorated birthday cake or pull an ornament on the Christmas tree so the whole thing comes falling down. Just as easily they can transform a blissful mom sipping tea into a four-legged animal braying, “Don’t drop that cup!”
Exuberant children slam through serenity. They derail scheduled events. They strip of us of our “shoulds,” showing us just how much we can live without. They demand that parents stay on the balls of our feet, ready to spring in one direction, then another. Over and over and over again. The process is physically and mentally exhausting, and exuberant children leave very (VERY!) little time for rest and replenishment.
The idea of surrender is important to remember because it allows us to tell ourselves that it’s okay if we’re tired, disheveled and even unproductive in a GNP kind of way. Parenting is hard, and if we’re really doing it (rather than outsourcing it) then we are going to be undone. And being undone, according to Pema Chodron, is the path to becoming an awakened being. She explains:
The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. It’s gone too far…[But] when we reach our limit, if we aspire to know that place fully – which is to say that we aspire to neither indulge nor repress – a hardness in us will dissolve. We will be softened by the sheer force of whatever energy arises…A wider, more generous, more enlightened person arises.
I’ve experienced this exact opening of self that Chodron describes. Just a few days ago at 2 AM, I staggered downstairs as usual with exuberant Mikah on my hip. As I pulled out the Legos and train tracks, I worried about being tired when teaching class at 9 AM that day. I also vexed about feeling grumpy by the time I picked up my two older kids from school for a scheduled playdate of sledding. Grief, too, stomped into my brain: what if I fell asleep when putting the kids to bed that evening. Eric and I desperately needed to connect; too many days were passing by with us living as roommates rather than romantic lovers, and what if I blew it again?
All these negative thoughts were battering around in my mind, making me tired and grumpy — so why was I even worrying about feeling so later? I was already there. I’d become a perfect example of the hard-edged ego trying to control my world and fight unplanned upset.
Then Mikah gave me a hug. He put his head on my shoulder and his arms around my neck. The smooth warmth of his skin always amazes me. He even gave me a few pats on both shoulders. I enjoyed his embrace for every second it lasted, my worries and complaints melting. How passionately I loved this boy: adoration radiated from every one of my cells. When Mikah pulled away to chase after an electric train, I laughed at how silly I’d been: I’d wake up every hour of the night to enjoy more hugs like that!
Once I surrendered, I felt a lot lighter, even less tired. I played with Mikah another hour, made us a snack, then got us back to bed for at least ninety minutes before dawn. When I stepped into the classroom a few hours later, my students looked as tired as I felt, so rather than lecture, I led them through a series of writing prompts. Some of the words that followed were inspiring, some were angry and full of complaint, all were charged and thought-provoking. I didn’t even have time to feel tired.
The sledding playdate with my kids was also surprisingly refreshing. My daughter Grace chose to help with Mikah and to sled with him on the small hill rather than play on the more dangerous hill with her peers. Mikah was thrilled with her attention and laughed every sled ride down. “He’s not just your baby,” she said to me. “He’s our baby, and I can help.” Such treasure!
More unexpected beauty occurred later that night. Eric was as tired as me, so as soon as the kids went down, we put ourselves to bed, and the magic that followed was sweeter than ever. Of course, Mikah was up and calling for attention an hour later. The freedoms Eric and I enjoyed before he arrived into our lives are gone for now, but surrendering to this loss is what makes us parents. After a last lingering kiss with Eric, I went to my baby, and this time, instead of tromping downstairs to the same old toys with him, I pulled a blanket around us and stepped outside.
The night air was still and the moon full and bright, like an orb. Mikah pointed to it, then clapped his hands. Our awe at the sensual beauty of the night entwined, and we stayed outside for a while, longer than I’d have enjoyed if alone. I realized that when I allow myself to honor the parenting process, I open me more to the delights and miracles of my life as it is. I’m more able to enjoy what matters – love, family, community, and the natural world.
Standards: This next truth might seem a bit in contrast to the first, but the pendulum always has to swing, and surrendering to your child does not mean spoiling your child. Our job as parents is to listen to our children and also to raise them into healthy, kind and helpful human beings. It’s tricky to live a sane balance between these two directives, but we need to try.
To raise children with high standards requires that you know what yours are. Of course, we are all evolving and eternally revising our life values, but with Mikah I had to get clear and specific right away. My daughter Grace explained this need for definite standards:
We need to make a chart for Mikah so we know what he gets stars for and when he should go into timeout. We’re not doing anything the same, so how’s he going to know what is really good or really bad? He’s going to think he can get away with anything!
Right on, girlfriend! Grace and I made a chart that evening. The left side lists all that earns Mikah applause from the family: saying new words, picking up toys and putting them away, kissing family members, and touching others gently. On the right side are timeout offenses: not picking up toys when asked, not doing something after being asked two times, and biting. Timeout for Mikah consists of putting him in a playpen for one minute.
It’s astounding how well this chart works. When the whole family is abiding by the same standards, with both rewards and consequences, Mikah learns and minds what he’s learning. I plan on Xeroxing the chart for Mikah’s two babysitters. Consistency is as important as kindness when dealing with kids, and I am determined to maintain the first as well as the second with Mikah.
It’s not always easy. It’s especially hard when I’m exhausted or distracted. If Mikah does something on the right side of the chart, no matter how tired or busy I feel, I need to pick him up and put him in his pen. Then I need to make sure he learns his lesson and doesn’t repeat the offensive activity after getting out. What keeps me on track more than anything is the commitment of my older kids. They are rigid disciplinarians! They’re big enough to pick up Mikah and put him in the pen themselves, and they would, if I didn’t follow their orders to “stick to the chart, Mom!” When my other kids aren’t around and it’s up to me alone to uphold standards, I tell myself that I’m working now to avoid working harder later. I’d rather teach manners to a one year old I can pick up than to a teen who can run out the door.
“Can I put Mikah in timeout for being annoying?” I asked Eric after a particularly tough morning. Because Mikah wakes up so early, sometimes 3 or 4 AM, I am sometimes alone with him for several hours pre-dawn. If I’m organized and clear-minded, I can usually come up with useful activities to take up time — mop the kitchen floor, organize Tupperware containers, or bake another batch of granola. Some mornings, though, I’m so freakin’ tired and just want to sip tea, stretch by the fire, and have him play with baby toys. (Imagine!)
These mornings are always disastrous. Mikah will pull my hair to get me to follow him in a certain direction, screech like a tortured monkey, and go after all the no’s in the room – the candle on the table, the knives in the silverware drawer, the matches “hidden” on a particularly high shelf. This last Sunday, I woke Eric at 6:30 AM, feeling like I’d been alone with a mini manic monster all day.
“Put him in timeout,” Eric said.
“Just because he’s driving me nuts?” It didn’t feel fair, more like an abuse of my large size.
“If you’re about to punch him in the face, it’s for his own safety.”
Eric’s not a morning person, and his words were a bit harsh, but I have come to understand that timeout can be used for exuberant babies when they are being a pain in the butt. I did it just this morning. Mikah was exerting himself in one dangerous direction after another, and after twenty minutes of feeling myself getting more and more irritated, I picked him up, and said, “You need to stop testing me. I love you, and you need to help me get through our chores. We have work to do.” Then I put him in timeout for a minute. He screamed as usual, but he was calmer after I took him out and helped with the chores cheerfully, as if the previous half hour had never happened.
I try not to abuse the timeout pen. I never leave Mikah in it longer than a minute, no matter how much I might yearn to let that minute stretch out. I need to maintain standards for myself as well as for my boy.
S.O.S. No one, no matter what age, can care for an exuberant baby without lots of help. It may take a village to raise some children, but Mikah needs the entire United Nations plus Michael Franti’s Dreamteam.
Exuberant babies are superhuman, full to bursting with more fuel than any of us ever will get in this lifetime. Eric and I are astounded by Mikah’s relentless energy. We simply cannot explain where it comes from: he is so intensely rigorous, and he rests so little. Even with two fit parents and three older siblings to entertain him, he’s still bounding around like Tigger in the moonlight. How does he do it? It’s not like he’s sneaking naps or shoving cocaine up his nose! He’s just simply…exuberant. And we need to keep up.
But not all the time. More so than ever before, I am asking people for help, and by “help” I often mean, “Will you please take my baby?” I never thought I’d be happy to pass my baby off to others. I spent my whole last decade getting myself in a position to care for my children full time! Yet over the last year I’ve hired two babysitters for Mikah, so that three or four times a week for three hours in the morning he is with other moms and their other kids. I use most of the time to work as an editor, teacher and writer; some of it I use to run and shower. Every second is delicious.
My heart breaks when I think of how many parents have no help. It’s just no fun that way. Leaving your baby at day care is traumatic, but being with your baby on your own week after week can be lonely and exhausting. Over the last two weeks, I’ve outreached to my kids’ midwife, a naturopath, all godparents, a dear friend who’s also a healer, the parents at a local playgroup, and Kimball Library’s children’s librarian. I even strike up conversations with parents at the local playground and grocery store. Every kind word and shared story helps, and I’m reaching everywhere for both.
Perhaps this list makes me sound desperate. I am! Mikah is more than I can parent alone. Add my two other kids plus the household and a new career, and I am often overwhelmed.
But parents don’t get to give up. We need to embrace our gorilla, inside and out, and hope for help from all other animals in the forest. The final stanza of a poem by Meredith Heller called “Chaos” gives exquisite advice:
If Chaos reaches for your hand, take it. She is an excellent tracker and guide. She will lead you safely through your darkest terrain. She will teach you to navigate by feel. She will ask you to face your demons and to let go of everything you identify with until all of your masks fall away and burn, and all that remains is life itself, dancing you like a river.
Chaos is not to be shunned: it’s a gift that strips you of all delusion, revealing what most matters. So dance in it, surrender to it, honor some high standards, and let’s help each other enjoy the party!