I just finished watching the premiere of NBC's series The Baby Borrowers (Why? Who knows? I'm pointing a finger at mental and physical exhaustion leading to inability to turn off the television.), and yeah, the networks are clearly grasping at straws to try to get viewers to tune in, but watching the show did get me started thinking about how I've changed since becoming a parent.
I've always been notoriously short on patience. My family knows me as a moody, grouchy, generally negative person. Proof positive: the "Rachel" face my nieces and nephews love to mimic features pouting lips and eyebrows drawn down as far as possible.
And it isn't that having Eliot has changed all that and made me into Miss Pollyanna Sunshine-Up-My-Ass Mommy. Far from it. I get frustrated and grouchy and fed up still, all the time. Yesterday, after dealing with a cranky, sick, whiny Eliot for too long, I gladly turned him over to his Pa, saying, "Come and get my child and take him somewhere where I'm not!" But that throwing in the towel comes after days, not minutes, like it did for some of the teen couples on Borrowers. Like it might have for a younger version of me.
Being Eliot's mom hasn't turned me into St. Teresa, but it has certainly expanded my ability to be patient, to slow down, to empathize, and to focus my energy and attention on someone other than myself. I've learned to recognize myself getting keyed up and frustrated, and try to get a handle on those emotions before I explode. (Oh but wait, that might not have been Eliot who taught me that; it may very well have been Lexapro. No matter.) When Eliot gets whiny or cries or is just being a general pain in the ass, I try to understand that his means of communication are still very limited. I ask myself what he would be saying if he could calm down and just speak his feelings to me in a rational way. And most of the time, he'd be saying, "Momma, I'm tired, but I just can't sleep," or "I don't feel well, would you please hold me?" or "I'm hungry," "My teeth hurt," "That damned floor jumped up and tripped me again and I hate it!"
Thinking of his whines and cries in this way really helps me to respond differently to him, with more compassion and understanding rather than with a defeated air of "Oh Lordy, he's crying AGAIN." And it also helps me understand him as a person, a little human being, who, though small and dependent, has thoughts, feelings, motivations, and ideas of his own. He isn't just a mindless little blob, like I used to think all babies were. Even from the beginning, he's been a person all his own with his own way of seeing and experiencing the world and reacting to his surroundings.
Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night with rockstar attitude, and the translation of his red-faced wails into English would go something like this: "IF YOU DON'T BRING ME MY MOTHERFUCKING BOTTLE NOW, YOU'RE FIRED!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Other times he grunts and whimpers for long minutes and seems to be almost contented with gentle pats on the back and rocking, until he spies an empty bottle on his windowsill, and with a point and a short-clipped, "eh," clearly communicates, "Uh, Momma. What you're doing here is nice and all...but I think I'll just take one of those instead."
So I guess my growth as a person, as a parent, has meant learning to see my child's needs and my fulfillment of those needs not as an inconvenience or a burden to be bourne, not as a job (though it's certainly hard work), but as a complex interaction with another human being. A human being who's worth all of my continued efforts at patience and understanding, even when he smashes peas and throws them on the floor.
These are changes that don't take place while babysitting or borrowing another person's child, even overnight for three days. Perhaps the teen couples on Borrowers will learn that parenting is much more work than they thought, that raising kids puts stress on a relationship, that a baby's continued cries can literally drive one to insanity. Maybe they'll realize that they aren't ready for the responsibility that children bring, and maybe they'll be more compelled to use birth control, which might just be the point of the show. (Well, that and ratings that lead to advertiser dollars, of course. Let us not forget THAT.) But I don't think anyone can realize the spectacular highs and tremendous lows of parenting until they actually become responsible for the life of a little person. A little person who doesn't come with a binder full of instructions, professional nannies standing by in case of emergency, and parents a house away, watching your every move.
When Eliot was born, and I heard his first cries before I was even able to see him, my reaction was a mixture of relief and fear. Relief because it meant my pregnancy had finally come to an end, and I had crossed that finish line successfully with no major mishaps. And fear because he was here, here in the world, and what was I supposed to do with him now? It was definitely an "oh, shit" kind of moment. What have I done now? And throughout the next couple of days and weeks, trying to take care of my newborn son while recovering from major surgery, there were times when I seriously wondered, What The Hell Have I Done? I was angry that no one seemed to talk about how difficult, how really, really, excruciatingly difficult it is to take care of a baby, to be a parent to a child. I felt cheated, in a way. It was like I had put my coins into the slot and pressed the Coke button, only for a Diet Sprite to roll out. This was not what I thought I had signed up for.
But Eliot, by being himself (and not just my imagined fairytale version of what my child would be like), has made me a better version of me. It's because of him that I've had to take responsibility for myself. It's because of him that I finally learned to pay attention to myself, not in a narcissistic, navel-gazing way (although obviously there's still some of that, or why else would I blog?), but in a more mature, adult, "okay let's calmly take stock of what needs to be done and then do it" way. In an "it's time to face reality" way. You know, reality. The world that has nothing to do with tv shows and everything to do with getting up at 2:30 in the morning and getting my rockstar baby his bottle, even when the cameras aren't rolling.