Exploiting My Baby* *Because It's Exploiting Me

Another Pebble on Baby Beach

General StuffTeresa Strasser41 Comments

The way I was going to dodge all the stereotypical haggard new mom behaviors, well, that didn’t really happen. It didn’t happen at all.

Yeah, I hate the sound of my own voice saying things like, “I just want to shave my legs. Is that such a luxury?” Hearing myself make jokes about the spit-up on my shirt makes me want to spit up on the rest of my shirt.

It’s not cute and it’s not adorable to complain about getting peed on or about being a new mother with severe personal hygiene deficiencies. You know why? Because it’s not special. Guess what: You are not the first mother to leave the house with baby drool on your shoulder or with mismatched shoes, and neither am I.

It’s one thing to be a bad mother (in fact, it’s probably the worst thing you can do, and no one will forgive you for that shit), but it’s another one to be hacky in your new maternity complaints. I have not been able to avoid the latter, and only time will tell about the former.

Hold on.

All of this self-deprecation is getting in the way of me bragging. Give me a second, I’ll be boasting about myself soon enough, but let me just finish the self-loathing so I can feel better about the boasting.

Not only do I find myself making all the stock mom complaints (tired, hard to find time for sex, hair not washed, stomach not flat, doing laundry all day, no free time, no girl time, no time with grown ups, back hurts from holding baby, arms hurt from holding baby, asleep by 9 p.m., lost track of world events, baby sitters are so expensive, going to the movie costs $9,000 now, you get the idea) I’m in serious danger of falling into another cliché, the competitive preschool waiting list thing. That’s right, after yapping about how I’m never going to be one of those despicable hover parents who need to get their genius child into the most elite preschool that charges you $17,000 a year for “creative play,” after insisting I was sending Buster to the $60 a month pre-school run by the park and recreation department, this bullshit preschool thing I was outrunning caught me by the scruff. It caught me and now it’s forcing me to go to open houses and do research and figure out what they mean by “co-op” and “Waldorf.”

It was all well and good to flaunt my working class roots, to insist on sending my kid to the same kind of free city preschool that taught me so much about chalk drawing and swinging, but the very impulse that snares all the other normally reasonable parents tagged me. What if I screw my kid by going all cheapo on his first school? Although logic dictates that a tricycle is a tricycle and any place that doesn’t allow him to swallow marbles and eat Laffy Taffy for snack time is pretty much the same as the next, I can’t be sure. What if there really is some voodoo magic in those fancy schools that enables pupils to tackle concertos and theorems while speaking multiple languages and excelling at Irish clog dancing? If I don’t place him in a learning environment that properly conveys “conflict resolution,” will he end up kicking the shit out of people and telling me to go fuck myself? What if?

So, I turned my back on the park and rec school for a moment and went to my first private pre-school open house (well, half of it, I was rolling on “mom time”). I must say, though I didn’t understand most of the information about learning styles, I was truly impressed by the diversity of the other parents on the tour. There were white people, and there were super white people. There were even a couple insanely white people, so at least Buster would be exposed to all manner of white people.

As far as bragging goes, while I might be failing at the job of resisting parental peer pressure when it comes to preschool, I’m already pretty okay with mediocrity.

If intelligence, or physical abilities or appearance, language skills, coordination, if all of these things follow a standard distribution, if most babies cluster around the mean in terms of when they crawl or walk or talk or get teeth or conjugate verbs, it’s unlikely my baby will be an outlier in any area, statistically speaking. And so far, I don’t find him to be many standard deviations from the mean (other than in terms of size, because he has a giant, outlying pumpkin head and is unusually tall and heavy, or in the parlance of toddlers at the park, he “is fat like an elephant”). As far as the type of skills you brag about to other parents, I’m going to say hello to mediocrity and give it a warm bear hug.

My boy is about ten months old, and he doesn’t exactly crawl yet. He just rolls across the floor or scoots on his belly. He has a normal amount of teeth. He kind of says “mamamammam” but he ain’t referring to me as he babbles. He sees the cat and says “kah” or “kee kah.”

So far, he hasn’t set the world on fire with his precocity. I assume he will not be scooting to the prom on his belly, so I’m not worried. Sure, there’s something fun about having the kid who crawls at five months, walks at six, talks in full sentences at a year, writes in iambic pentameter at two. It’s undeniably cool having one of those stunning children about whom versions of the same story are always told (“We were at the mall, and a photographer asked if we wanted to get her into modeling” – “We were out to lunch, and an agent said he’d be perfect for commercials” – you’ve surely heard versions of the show-stopping baby story, the baby who is almost constantly begged to become a child actor by strangers in show business promising residuals and college funds).

I’d eat the cheeks off my boy and he’s adorable, but mama knows he’s not so far from the mean.

When my parents said that they just wanted me to be happy, I kind of believed them but empirical evidence showed me that they weren’t exactly bummed out when I won the spelling bee or the state poetry contest. Side note: earnest poetry written by a nine year-old from the point of view of a concentration camp inmate might win a contest or two, but could also be the worst prose ever written.

I knew where my bread was buttered, and in the land of American Jews, it’s buttered on the side of achievement. I don’t hold it against my people, because my grandparents came here as immigrants and were thus obsessed with public displays of “making it” here in the land of opportunity, but it sucks when the only way to stand out or be unabashedly loved is to become a concert cellist or chess master.

And having only been a mother for less than a year, I already understand the urge to see your child as faster and smarter, to squint and strain looking for ways your child is edging toward the righteous tail of that bell curve instead of hugging the midline, with all the other short stacks, just another pebble on baby beach.

For me, I’m resisting. I’m embracing the notion that Buster, like most of our kids, will be mostly average, and to look into their faces expecting otherwise is to hang a photo of parental disappointment on the locker of their psyches.

So do we go into debt to send our toddlers to the “best” preschool in town because we want to give them every advantage, or are we secretly hoping to maximize the odds of their Harvard admission so we can brag about it later and throw around some false modesty classics like, “I don’t know where he gets his smarts! Or, “How we’re going to afford it, I have no idea, but what can you do? He just scores so well on tests.”

Trying to tie this shit together is like trying to shove everything you’re going to need for the afternoon into a diaper bag, but I usually attempt that, so here goes.

One of my first epiphanies as a mother is that I am not unique. The bliss, the boredom, the sense of grief for the old life, the panic over poop color and rashes, the elation over milestones, the wanting to drive away and never come back between bouts of wanting to stare at his tiny face forever, this is basically how it is. I didn’t break the mom mold, and instead of needing to be different, I find deep comfort in being the same. While the banality of my maternal concerns can bore me, so can a good night’s sleep and a bowl of broccoli, and I need those things.

It follows that accepting my child for who he is, whether he walks at ten months or sixteen, whether he says “kitty cat” or “domesticated carnivorous mammal,” will also be comforting in the long run. Most moms, most babies, toddlers, tweens, teens, young adults, old people, most of us will be unexceptional, we’ll all need buckets of love and acceptance just because, and not just because we have an eight-octave range or can dunk.

The thing I notice about Buster, the thing that makes me want to brag though I usually manage to shut up about it, is that he smiles at strangers. And sometimes he smiles at the front door. Or at the “domesticated carnivorous mammal” whose hair he is clutching in his fat little fists. He smiles. I can’t believe I’m not even slightly full of crap when I say that this thrills me and makes me more proud than anything. If my child is a happy person, if his little soul is peaceful and his moods moderately mild, if he enjoys himself and seems to interact well with others – that will be his inner self enrolling in Harvard and I’ll be kvelling. Happiness has eluded me like the cat (mostly) eludes the baby. I grab at it, I eyeball it, I grasp it momentarily by the tail but it out runs me and scurries away before I can get it to curl up on my lap.

I hope I won’t ever need Buster to do anything extraordinary, but if he keeps up the smiling, and by extension, the overall sense of joie, even his happiness is only average, that will be good enough for me. And much cheaper than a Waldorf school.