Monday, January 21, 2013

All I Know Is That I Don't Know (Nothing)*

*Title is a song by Operation Ivy that's been in my head for a week.

I turned 40 last week and the most notable thing about it was that nothing notable happened. After 39 years of utterly uncelebrated, unremarkable birthdays, it's a little odd that I expected this one to be different somehow. I thought that maybe I would wake up with new wrinkles or a shock of grey hair or a nearsighted squint. But one day I was 39 and the next day I was 40 and somewhere in there I still managed to go for a run, take a half day off work, go dancing with my husband, eat too much at my favorite restaurant and see a really bad movie. Not too shabby.

The thing I can't shake now is that I am old. I know, I know, you're only as old as you feel. Age is just a number. Right. But 40 is older than I ever thought I would be, and even to my 40-year-old ears, it sounds old. It's very likely that more than half my life is behind me. It's a very tough concept for me to swallow that my life, this wonderful, precious life, is a one-way journey and that one day my girls will wake up and I will not be there to tell them I love them. I am not really okay with that yet. Is anyone ever?

I remember being a kid and looking at my parents and other people's parents -- all of whom at that point were younger than I am now -- and thinking, wow, grownups know so much. I knew nice moms and mean moms. I knew scary dads, creepy dads, fun dads. Some of my friends' parents were so awesome that I secretly wished they were mine too. I thought some of them were better than others, but only in how they related to their kids or to me. I never questioned their decision-making, their common sense, their ability to be providers and caregivers. Never once did it occur to me that these people might have no idea what they were doing.

What I have discovered is that being 40 doesn't mean anything. I look over my shoulder sometimes to see who's looking at me and I wonder what they see. A mortgage-payer, family-supporter and haver of 401ks, IRAs and 529s? A loving mom, perhaps? Hopefully not a Special Parent. A workaholic earner of a higher salary than either of my parents did? Or do they see the tattooed, scarred, sad and angry, black-haired girl who thought she was smarter than any grownup who crossed her path, yet took two steps sideways for every half-step forward? I am still her and I am also nothing like her because of all the other things I have become. And never forgetting any of it made me into someone very different. Older for sure. Less impulsive and less selfish. But wiser? No. 

Now I look at people my age - some are parents and some are not - and I think wow, we growups don't know jack! I know nice people, I know mean people. I know scary, creepy and fun people. There are as many parenting styles as there are parents, and I'm starting to see that none of us really has any idea what we're doing. (Right?)

I remember leaving the hospital after Bee was born, thinking, Holy crap, what am I supposed to do with her now? What did I do to make these people think that I can take care of a child? Are they crazy, letting me just walk out the door with this baby?

So who am I to be a head of household? Who am I to make decisions that affect other people? When Johnny and I talk about moving out of the city or what to do about Teeny and school or have any number of other Grownup Discussions that would be very difficult for anyone to work through, I sometimes wonder why can't I just put on my combat boots and headphones and stomp out of the house and around the East Village. Oh right, because I'm not 15 anymore. (And because the East Village just ain't what it used to be.) Growing up was painful enough the first time; you could not pay me to do it again. I still remember every embarrassing misstep. Call me crazy, but I even remember what it was like to be Bee's age, with her curiosity, her sensitive heart, her inexplicably random wants and needs. Her mind works like mine did and I remember how much it hurt when I felt unheard.

My emotional memory is life's greatest gift to me, and seeing it as such is the biggest indication that I have truly arrived as a grownup. When you're a real grownup, whatever that means, you are the sum of your parts. A new being that is part who you were and part who you have become and you remember it all as you move through life, and you use it as you fumble through the millions of decisions you make every day. So when Bee makes an off-the-wall request, like she did today when she wanted to help me by washing the walls with her favorite yellow sponge five minutes after Teeny went to sleep and fifteen minutes before her bedtime, my many different parts had to convene for a quick discussion. My 40 year old self said "No! Put that filthy sponge away. It's getting late. It's almost bedtime. We need to get your pajamas on and your teeth brushed." Then my 3 year old self said, "She's telling you, 'I want to help you. Let me feel important and like I'm part of the family.' Remember that feeling? How can you say no?" And then I debate with myself : Does it really matter if she goes to bed ten minutes later? She's happy. She's busy! She's helping. But I'm tired and I don't feel like playing. I asked her to get her nighttime diaper out and she ignored me. What a brat. She's not doing what I ask her. But so what? Does it hurt to let her do this instead? Or will she learn that she can get her way if she tries hard enough? Well, who cares? She's cleaning! If she does this, I can ask her to wipe the table with the sponge too, which she loves to do since she does it in school. And then she'll be distracted away from the 395873598 other things that distract her at bedtime. And even better, it will tire her out. And on and on and on.

This happens in the space of three seconds, and soon I'm on my hands and knees with another sponge and we're wiping at the not-so-washable fingerpaint stains and the stray flecks of dried baby food and the cat hair and laughing about how we're working together and her sponge is yellow and mine is beige and the soap is green and my section is cleaner than yours, Mama. And then she knocks over the cats' water bowl and we're cleaning that up too and then two seconds after that I am grabbing her and kissing the back of her neck and her hair and picking her up and she's tossing the sponge in the sink and we get her pajamas on and she says she wants to snuggle so we climb into my bed and huddle together under the covers until Daddy comes to carry her into her room to be tucked in and she says "I'm ready, Daddy. I love you, Mama. Goodnight!" and I watch her waving to me from her Daddy's arms, and all the different parts of me are quiet except for the 40 year old one whose heart is swelling because having your child tell you she loves you is the perfect ending to a good day and when you're 40, perfect moments mean a hell of a lot more than they did when you were 20.


  1. The saying goes, "With age, comes wisdom." Now you know. And in 20 more years it will be even better. *grin*


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