Sam and I have been locked in an argument about my parenting skills. You see, he thinks that I do not have eyes in the back of my head. And I know that I do.
He is pretty convinced that he is right. He tells me, "Mama, you only have eyes in the front," and pokes his little fingers at my eyeballs for emphasis. "But look," I respond, "look right behind all this hair in the back of my head. My eyes are right there. That's why mamas have long hair." He digs around in my curls, parts my hair this way and that, just to be sure. "No mama, you are being a clown," he tells me, laughing.
Despite the physical evidence and his conviction, he does bring up the topic quite often -- especially when he is doing something he is not supposed to behind my back. That's how I know I need to turn around to make sure he is not eating a bug, or drawing on the walls, or stuffing toast in his ears. "You see, I do have eyes in the back, I caught you!" I tell him and suddenly, shaken in his belief, he needs to start digging around in my hair again.
I often think about how true it is that when we become parents, we end up saying things that we swore we would never, ever utter to our own children. My mom used to drive me crazy with "I see and know everything because I have eyes in the back of my head," mostly because it was really true. By the time I walked the one block between my school and our apartment, my mom would know about that C on my geography test and that walking directly home involved a quick stop at the ice cream shop. It was infuriating to think that somehow, I was always watched by some secret neighborhood system of innocent-looking old ladies and shopkeepers who were really my mom's spies.
Of course I now know that this wasn't true, that my mom just knew these things because she knew me the best, just like I now know Sam.
It is such a simple knowledge, and yet I find that it's the hardest to rely on as a parent. To drown out all the noise, the opinions, the well-meaning advice, the not-so-well-meaning judgment, the trends, the gossip, the guilt -- to just look and listen to my little person and trust that what I feel in my gut is right. Whether it's mischief, or hurt feelings or an ear infection, my eyes in the back of my head always see what they need to see.
I am often amazed at the subtle, almost mysterious ways in which Sam and I are connected. We wake every night at the same time. I hear him move around and wrestle with his blankets just as I adjust my pillows mid-dream. And just as I open my eyes every morning, I hear his little feet running down the hall to my bedroom. Our moods, our health, our hunger, our thirst, all seemed to be synched in some kind of primal way.
This isn't a connection that came to me easily -- as I suspect is the case with most mothers, despite what glossy magazines tell you about falling in love with your baby at first sight. At first sight, my body was too ravaged and torn from labor to really make a connection with anything, let alone fall in love. I never wanted a natural birth, but nature has a strange way of deciding these things for itself. Natural birth is what I got and the midwife kindly reassured me that an epidural really wouldn't help me after the fact.
Sam hardly ever cried during our first days at home, except for when he was hungry. But then he wouldn't eat. And then I would cry. When after a few days he started to turn a slight tint of yellow and would sleep most of the day without any interest in eating, I was too cried out and too emotional to make it through a phone call with the pediatrician. I was really hoping that someone would just take this baby and return it to me in, oh, I don't know, five to six years. Maybe by that time I could pull myself together, heal, get some sleep and possibly wash my hair.
The hardest part of those days was not the exhaustion, or the emotional roller coaster, or the inexperience. It was the doubt. It was not knowing for sure that I would ever get better at this, that I would ever learn to read what my baby needs. It was not knowing for sure whether I would ever grow eyes in the back of my head.
I was convinced that I just sucked at this mothering thing. I was sure that I was doing everything wrong -- everyone around me had a better way, a better idea, one more thing to try and one more thing that I hadn't thought of or didn't know about. The more advice I read or listened to, the more confusing it all seemed. A simple, cozy nap on the couch with my sweet baby on my breast was cause for long bouts of self-doubt: Is this OK, that we nap like this? Is he going to be too attached to me? Or not attached enough? Am I messing up his sleep? Will he want to sleep like this all the time now? Oh my god, he is going to go to college wanting to sleep on his mother's chest! He is going to need therapy for the rest of his life. Oh my god, I messed him up in one afternoon!
"Calm. Down. Woman," I want to tell myself as I look back on that time. "It is all going to be OK. Most of this stuff does not matter -- not really, not in the big picture. Breast or bottle, bed or crib, my room or his, organic or not -- it will all be OK. Sam will be reasonably intelligent, reasonably happy, reasonably messed up -- just like the rest of us. So just breathe. You'll know what to do. It's all fine."
That's the knowledge I wish I had as a new mother: that the certainty, the mother-tiger awareness is already all inside, within my reach. But back then it was hard to imagine that one day, not that long after those first nightmarish days, I would be able to predict the onslaught of an ear infection, recognize the first ominous signs of an upcoming night of vomiting, know the best way to treat all boo-boos and ouchies, be able to calm an oncoming tantrum -- or know how to stay out of the way while it's going on. I couldn't imagine that despite my inexperience, I did already know the difference between hunger and sadness, exhaustion and bellyaches, or "cuddle me" and "leave me alone."
Just like Sam, I could not imagine having eyes in the back of my head.
Photo by Gabriela Pinto, flickr