When I was a young girl, I wanted to be many things. An actress. A writer. A translator at the U.N. A CIA operative. I drifted in and out of these career aspirations, my enthusiasm waxing and then waning as the real world collided with the dream.
But I had one ambition that never wavered. Above all, I wanted to be a mother.
Well, duh, you might say. Every female baby boomer was programmed for that role. Who among us could resist the telegenic charms of June Cleaver and Donna Reed and Margaret Anderson? Wise, well-coiffed, and unfailingly gracious, they seemed to suggest that motherhood consisted of vacuuming while wearing pearls and, at moments of crisis, dispensing infallible counsel at the kitchen table. The messier parts were not on display.
So I was programmed, true. But I also loved babies.
By the age of 14, I was a veteran babysitter. In addition to my younger brothers, I took care of six neighborhood children under the age of six for 50 cents an hour. I played endless games of Candy Land and read Ping and Make Way for Ducklings to the older kids until my eyes crossed, but it was the tiny ones who kept me coming back. I was besotted with infants, their pristine newness, their minute perfection. A quick study, I gobbled instructions on bottles and burping and learned to wrap a receiving blanket just so, one corner turned up in a neat little hood. Looking back, I am amazed that the mother of this formidable brood trusted me with a newborn. She must have been counting heavily on my own mother, three doors down, as she whisked off to bridge or garden club. Whatever her rationale, I remain grateful. Her confidence affirmed my intuition that this was my destiny.
I wanted 12 children, I used to tell people breezily. Six of each. And then, at 21, I had one and revised my estimate.
Caring for an infant 24/7 in a student apartment, I discovered, was markedly different from babysitting for four hours and then going home to dinner. Why had I never observed these alarming rashes and sudden fevers? How had I missed the fact that tiny babies are noisy even when they sleep, given to heart-stopping moans and gasps? And what was up with this pile of laundry?
It was there, rocking my first-born in a borrowed Naugahyde recliner, that I began the long process of separating fantasy from reality. Mothers and their vocation inspire more myths than any job I can think of, including soldier of fortune and big game hunter. Here, just in time for Sunday, are my Four Myths about Motherhood:
Love is All You Need
Let’s just say it’s a start. Next come humility, patience, a strong stomach, X-ray vision, an inexhaustible supply of Kleenex. A pediatrician who calls you back fast. Later, a close personal relationship with the car insurance claims adjustor.
You Can Learn it From a Book
My copy of Dr. Spock was in tatters by the time my third child started nursery school. While the good doctor’s reassuring voice saved me from many an episode of unbridled panic, his wisest counsel appeared on page one: “You know more than you think you know.”
Children grow up and leave the nest and presto! Your job is done. Sorry. The grow-up-and-leave-the-nest part is mostly true, but the job is permanent. Last thought at night. First waking moment. Yours for life, and thereafter.
Not. I’ll give you exhausting, terrifying, and occasionally monotonous. I’ll acknowledge those moments when motherhood loses its magic. But measured against the first electric flash of recognition, weighed against the first tight grip of a finger that seals the bond for all eternity, there is no contest.