We had to fill out one of those doctor’s questionnaires recently that you seem to constantly have to fill out as a parent. When did your child turn from his back to his belly for the first time? When did he crawl? When did he walk? We couldn’t recall immediately. Although we probably thought in each of those moments that we’d never forget them.
I do, however, remember how much Arlo loved turning on to his side on the changing table, prop himself up on one elbow and casually place his other hand on his side, like Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug. I remember how he would lift one corner of the rug in our living room for the gazillionth time, as though this time, THIS TIME, he’d find something under there. How he didn’t flinch when he took his very first bite of ice cream, but wanted more, more, more. How he turned shampoo bottles into the most exciting toy in the world. How he stopped flicking the pages of books and started listening, but only when Oma was reading to him.
If I had to choose just one word to describe the first couple of years with Arlo, I’d pick astonishing. Astonishing that he’s two years and two months old now… no, hang on, three months. Astonishing that I used to count Arlo’s age in days. Now I have to think about how many months plus two years he’s old. Not because his age is any less important. It just feels more natural that I’m his mother with every passing day. And still, I’m also baffled every day that he’s not just my child, who one day began turning and crawling and walking. But that he’s his very own person, who belongs to us. Who’s funny and wild and gap-toothed-cheeky.
A person who will not, CANNOT, sleep when his feet are covered. Who thinks that ice cream cones should be eaten upside down because he likes the waffle best. Who’s opposed to closed doors and immediately protests when you dare to want to spend ten minutes by yourself in the bathroom. Who’s always looking for the exit. Playground? Boring! Much more interesting to blaze a trail through the shrubs, to the sidewalk, to freedom. When I recently took him to Denmark, he took one look at my parents’ garden and then proceeded to explore all of the neighbouring gardens. Taking a walk with Arlo takes 13 times as long as taking a walk without Arlo, because he consistently wants to go in the other direction. Or even take a complete detour, to go lie down under some trees, lift his fingers to the sky and sing to himself. I have to be very careful not to freeze with love in those moments, because… Arlo? ARLO? Damnit, he’s escaped again. He’s so fearless that it scares me sometimes. And so determined that I often feel like we’re in a debate club. I’m afraid that once he starts speaking in coherent sentences, James and I are doomed.
On the other hand, then he might be able to explain why it’s so important to wrestle every single pillow to one end of the bed, then to the other end, before going to sleep. And why he has to keep slamming his left leg, always the left leg, against the mattress as he’s trying to find the right position to go to sleep in. Why trams are, like, the most exciting thing ever. Apart from water. Water’s so exciting that he climbed into the (thankfully shallow) koi pond at the aquarium, because: why wouldn’t you? Why he rests his head on our left shoulders, always the left shoulder, whenever he needs a rest, needs to refuel and be little again. Actually, no, I don’t want him to explain that last one. I just want him to keep doing it for a good while longer.
I was at home by myself last week. After I had taken Arlo to Denmark, James took him to England. We grown-ups thought separate family visits might be a good idea after the relentless first half of 2016 and the
impending upcoming move. And it was. Yet, I was often wondering how Arlo was doing, what he was up to, what I was missing. It wasn’t the first time we’d been apart. But the first time for this long. When James sent pictures of him, I couldn’t believe how much more grown up he seemed even in a matter of days. There were a few times, especially mornings, when it was so unusually quiet waking up, when I’d look at old photos of him on my phone. Overwhelmed by how delicate he once was. He was born so little that it seems almost impossible that the baby in my pictures and the strong, self-confident, brave boy, whose name is Arlo and who lives with us, are the same person.
I hadn’t expected to feel so melancholic and I’m sure it has a lot to do with our move. I’m really excited about our new apartment. But we’re also leaving Arlo’s first home. The place, where I carried him over the threshold on a day in May two years ago. I remember that we ate spaghetti bolognese that night that my mom had pre-cooked for us, not saying much to each other and looking to the couch instead, where Arlo lay swaddled and sleeping, stupidly grinning at each other, because we couldn’t believe that he was really there. Our son.
I never did learn to swaddle him the way his midwife could. But there’ve been a few lessons along the way that I don’t want to forget. Even if no-one ever asks us about them in questionnaires.
You will not be prepared. Not for the tiredness. Not for the stress. Not for the cluelessness. But mostly not for being flooded with feeling when Arlo leans in to give you a nose kiss and all your love for him instantly washes away the tiredness and stress and cluelessness.
You will not advise expecting mothers to get in some extra hours of sleep before giving birth. Pre-sleeping? Mwahahahahaha. Hahaha. Ha. Hargh.
You will in general try not to give unsolicited advice about parenting. Except for this tip: Humour helps. Humour and wipeable surfaces.
You will not be perfect. You will lose your patience. Be irritable. Feel helpless. Frustrated. Disappointed in yourself that you will not be able to do it all. You will, for instance, not write a weekly diary for Arlo, as you had planned, not even a monthly one, and instead try to put it all in a blogpost when he’s two years old, at which you will also fail. You will use playground time to hammer emails into your smartphone. You won’t cook every meal from organic ingredients. You will let your kid watch Peppa Pig on YouTube if it gets him to just be quiet for five minutes. Well, 10 minutes. Alright, 20. You will have to stop feeling guilty about any of this. You might not be perfect and you will fall short sometimes. But you’ll also take leaps. You’ll be pretty good. And that’s good enough.
You will also not feel guilty about looking forward to a week alone, alllllooooonnneeeee, like a kid is looking forward to Christmas. James and Arlo might’ve totally ruined being alone for you, the realisation of which will fill you with immense gratitude. But those days without a stopwatch, and oh those nights, when you’re sat by yourself on the living room floor, leafing through old magazines, drinking too much red wine and going to sleep at 1am, laying down right in the middle of the big bed, those days and nights will be holy to you.
Yeah, red wine and bed by 1am. You’re boring now. You won’t mind it one bit.
You will in no small part be the mother that you are because James is the father that he is. You will be infinitely grateful for this man. So much that you’ll have the confidence to say to him: I’m at a loss right now.
You will have to stop calling him „Papa“ though when Arlo isn’t within earshot. Now. I mean right now. Just stop.
You will be unable to stop coming up with new nicknames for Arlo. All of them incredibly silly.
Professor Unrulius Nudlington, I mean, Arlo will teach you to re-examine your priorities. For example, one spoonful of rice pudding in the mouth is more important than five spoonfuls of rice pudding on the kitchen wall. Staying in bed ten minutes longer beats showering. A flat may be considered tidy as long as you are able to open the doors to the rooms.
And it’s preferable to sing Bare Necessities from the Jungle Book very loudly and badly at the supermarket check-out if that is the only thing keeping your child from having a public meltdown.
You will be less easily embarrassed. Even by the looks some people give you because your child’s public meltdown is inconveniencing their shopping experience. Who seem to think that you’re doing something wrong. You will encounter quite a few people who have all sorts of thoughts, on children, on parenting, on you as a mother. Try not to pay attention to them.
Seek out the looks that will help you instead. More often than not you’ll see them on the faces of other mothers, standing behind you in the queue, giving you a wordless glance that says: I’ve been there. I know how you feel. Don’t worry. Screaming fits are perfectly normal.
You will have more questions than answers. But you will be surrounded by women who have similar questions and it will feel so much better to share your doubts than to hide them, and to support one another.
Because who else are you going to ask: „Is there anyone else here who sometimes forgets to shave both legs?“
You will have to trust yourself to make the right decisions for Arlo. It’s a great responsibility. But it’ll be easier than you think because you sense that he trusts you to do it (even if he knows everything better than you already and he’s only two).
You will wonder if you won’t just be able to care for him, but to raise him. Especially in those moments when the sixth spoonful of rice pudding has just hit the kitchen wall and he thinks it’s hilarious when you say „no“. But try and remember in those moments that you might have a little something to do with how fearless he is, how loving and how curious.
You will not just teach him things, he will teach you so much. In two short years you will become a master surgeon, with a speciality in splinter removal. You will become a member of the diplomatic corps. You will run a successful catering business. Open a complaints hotline. Will become a building block engineer, circus clown and lake resort expert. Among other professions.
Remember? That thing about not being prepared? You will also not be prepared for how proud you will be. Like you were when he slid down the slide for the first time by himself. You hope he can hold on to that feeling of pure joy forever. Even if he’ll never remember that moment.
You will worry. Your worries won’t always be as acute as they were in the beginning, when you kept checking if he was still breathing and James and you had prepared 27 or so questions for the first time the midwife came to visit. Questions like „Why isn’t he blinking more?“ (Answer: Babies don’t blink that often. It’s normal. Just like a lot of stuff is with kids). But even now you’ll sit next to his bed sometimes after he’s fallen asleep, look at him and the urge to protect him will be so overwhelming you could cry.
You will love like never before.
You will hope that you’ll always love more than you’ll worry.
You will be his mama. Just like that.