When I’m out and about with my two-year-old son, it’s nearly impossible to avoid conversation with strangers.
Maybe it’s his wavy auburn hair, wide brown eyes or how he smiles at people straight in the face. When toddlers are in their happy place, they delight in themselves and everything that’s around them. It’s simply impossible for passersby not to join in the fun.
This week, my little one was trotting around the lobby of our local library after his beloved Story Time with Miss Katie. A woman, moving quickly, prepared herself to blast into the fresh air, but stopped when she saw my son hopping around the lobby’s floor mats.
“It’s been a long time since my boys were this little,” she said kindly. “They’re practically grown, 17 and 12. My oldest will be leaving for college soon.”
I said that I could hardly imagine that.
“Yes, when they’re this little it’s hard to see anything else,” she said, looking down at my son. “It can be tough at the beginning with boys,” she recalled. “The first three years are hard. They have so much energy. It can really take it out of you. But I think when they get older, it seems easier than raising girls.”
I replied that I’d heard other people say the same thing. She seemed like a relatively open book so I asked her, “Did you like spacing your children?”
She said it wasn’t really her plan, but after delivering her first she got pretty sick. She said she needed a break. Then her dream job popped up and she just couldn’t say no. She looked up and four years had past. She was older when she started everything. Almost forty when she had her second. She told me that her youngest was born with a cleft lip and some special needs. She worried she should have done everything sooner.
She looked at me and said, “Until you have a child with special needs, you just can’t understand what it takes.”
I nodded my head slightly. “Yes,” I said.
We said our goodbyes and she left, but for the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking of her. I felt sad thinking of the guilt she was carrying – had carried – for all those years. I wished I could find her again to look in her eyes and say, It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault your son has disabilities. It’s not your fault you needed to take care of yourself. It’s not your fault you waited and lived your life and worked a dream job. Don’t blame yourself.
It takes nearly everything we have to live our own lives, and when we become mothers and have our babies, we dip so far into our reserves that sometimes we come inside out. When things go wrong, we blame ourselves at the cellular level because we think our children perfect, and the only explanation that they could by anything other than perfect must be our own shortcomings.
Of course this isn’t true. One of the greatest lessons many of us will need to learn is that we can’t be responsible for every breath, feeling and action our children take. But sometimes it seems so impossible that we could grow our babies inside our very being and not feel accountable for every single thing.
The only way I can make sense of this, and not be buried under the responsibility of another life, is to think of every life – even my child’s – as a mystical formula. A formula comprised of choices, circumstances, genes, influences, people, chemistry, traits, grace-filled moments and a final ingredient that I just can’t put my finger on. It’s something that changes the equation moment to moment.
We mothers are bestowed these lives – These lives that sync up to us and change our very stride. All we can do is embrace them and take our steps, side by side.
Lake Effect essayist Lane Pierce is a Listen To Your Mother essayist and 2014 Milwaukee cast member. She writes, wrangles and raises a spirited toddler with her husband in Whitefish Bay.