When I woke up this morning I read a couple of blog posts. The usual ritual. Today I was caught by this one from Cara at Peonies and Polaroids. For those unfamiliar with Cara, she’s a photographer, and she and her husband Nye had twin babies last November. That’s Ella, above.
Today Cara shared observations on her daughters. How Ella eats. How Amelia babbles. On the long list of what mothers do, Coming To Know Our Children sits right beneath Keeping Them Warm, Dry, and Fed.
Her post is lovely. Her babies are lovely. Perhaps because of the loveliness I felt a counterposed melancholy. I thought about one of the times I got it wrong.
My daughter was 2 years, 9 months old when my son was born, in April of 1990. That Christmas, December of 1990, we got a video camera, and took some footage that we remembered for ages. We see my son, wearing fuzzy red footie pyjamas, crawling repeatedly towards my daughter’s Christmas presents. She finally picks him up – and let me say right here that he weighed close to 25 pounds at 8 months old – and says, in a phrase that became immortal in our family, “Brother, you may STAY down!”
She used his name, but you get my point.
We retold that moment over and over again as an iconic moment of my daughter’s forcefulness. We even implied, now and then, that she was overbearing.
Two years ago I found the old videos, and had them converted to CDs. Guess what? It turned out, through a 20-year lens, my daughter had in fact been trying her best to deal gently with a very persistent baby. We watched more videos. The time when she insisted her father had to come dance with her alone, in her room? She wasn’t looking for exclusive focus so much as trying to avoid kicking that same persistent little charmer.
In a third video, taken a year or so later, the two of them sit playing with wooden blocks. Naked. My children were apparently naked quite a lot when little. My daughter builds a structure. My son toddles by, slyly tapping her shoulder with a block. She looks up, annoyed, says something. Another minute passes. My son wanders around some more. He bonks her again, harder. “Ow!” she says.
The person behind the camera, their mother, me, finally steps in. But it’s clear the little guy gets away with a lot.
That Christmas, I gave copies of these videos to my kids and my parents. My sisters and I sat around, with my daughter, discussing how we’d misinterpreted and mythologized the little red-headed girl. How she’d really been trying her best to manage a great big event in the life of a child. “Yeah,” said my daughter, laughing, using a little girl voice, sticking out her lower lip just a bit, “I was.”
Even when you get it wrong, you have to trust it’s a good project, all that observation, all that mirroring. My son once said, referring to some worry or other, “Mom, you know how I am.” I am fairly sure he was comforted by what I knew. My daughter will say, “You know how I am when I get hungry.” Yes. Yes, I know how you are.
I know how you are, but now that belongs to you. I know how you are but I could have been wrong. I know how you are but I may find videos. I know how you are but you may tell me at 20 something I didn’t expect to hear. And it will be true.
Motherhood is a great, long voyage of doing the best you can. I had to take notes, or I would have lost my mind. I had to know so much, but be ready to give it all up in a moment. The image that comes to mind is writing in sand. There is nothing to be gained from hating waves.
Images: From Peonies and Polaroids, of course. The woman takes photos of her babies that tell a true story of motherhood. It’s kind of cheating of me to post that photo at the beginning. You are bound to like pretty much anything I say with that face in mind.