Thursday, March 12, 2009

The pursuit of happiness

These days I often find myself meditating on a terrible what if: if I were suddenly gone, what would I want le Petit to know about me, his mother? If I had to enumerate the reasons I blog, this would be high on my list.

This isn't as morbid a preoccupation as it might sound. Sure, I could be hit by a runaway RATP bus tomorrow or fall victim to a freak dog poop accident, hypothetical dangers in the life of a Parisian. Seriously, life is uncertain, and if I were on a plane spiraling into the Atlantic I would want to know that le Petit had a record of who I am and how much he is loved. But I fully expect to be around to continue the conversation when le Petit is ten, twenty, or thirty years old, and I'm taking notes now to accompany him through an eventual midlife crisis.

So it's more complicated. I expect that there will be times in his life when we communicate better than others. There will be times when I'm not sure I can adequately tell him how much I love him, or describe how that love has evolved and grown throughout his childhood. There may be times when he's so frustrated with me that for a moment he secretly wishes I would step outside and be hit by an RATP bus. I figure that if I write what I feel now while the words come easily, it will be there for him when he needs it but we're both too distant or frustrated to know what to say.

Lately, I've been spending more time than I'd like to admit surfing the web, most of it reading "mommy blogs" and an excellent parenting advice column. It turns out we mothers have a lot to write about, and unsurprisingly, what we write tends to complaint and commiseration. It makes sense, because mothering is hard. I've found it can even be the hardest thing I've ever tried to do, as I admitted when I sobbed into the telephone to my husband in the middle of my first day at home alone with the newborn le Petit. There are sleepless nights, raging temper tantrums (both yours and your child's), fear and worry and continual, endless questioning of your own decisions. And I'm just describing infancy and toddlerhood: as le Petit grows, I will have less and less control over his environment, over his choices, over his path. I can only imagine what it must feel like for parents when their child sits behind the wheel of a car for the first time.

Becoming a mother was the biggest act of faith of my life. I leaped, knowing I was ready to not be ready, knowing I was starting down a road with no idea of my destination. When people asked me my thoughts about childbirth when I was pregnant with le Petit, I told them that I wasn't nervous about it. It was the twenty years that would follow the birth that terrified me. Everyone chuckled and parents nodded, but parents of adult children corrected me that even after twenty years, the story wouldn't be over.

All that anxiety did not serve me well, for when le Petit actually arrived I was still utterly unprepared. As it turned out, I wasn't even all that prepared to be unprepared. He turned my world upside down and backwards. Not since Sputnik had something so small and weighing so little caused such concern and upheaval.

When the pieces started settling in to place -- and they did, quickly -- I saw that my life had taken a drastically different form. There was a new pattern, and that pattern was joy. I had been happy before, but I also had my share of miscalculated priorities, fear, and even anxiety and depression. But when le Petit arrived, negative things that I had been unable to move for years simply shifted to make room for him.

I don't want to give le Petit credit for making me happy, for not only is that a huge burden to place on such tiny shoulders, but it isn't strictly true. There was certainly something in the new shape of our family that triggered it, in the natural teamwork that has developed between me and my husband. Some of it was suddenly having the landscape of my priorities thrown into clear relief. Some of it was just the wonder of watching a child grow, learn and metamorphosize from a tiny baby to a running, talking toddler in less than two years. Some of it was the smile. Is there any more powerful drug than your own child's smile? There may be: when they whisper "mama" and open their arms wide.

No one has words for this, which may be why no one talks about it. It makes me a bit sad, just as it makes me sad that no one talks about how wonderful marriage can be. I'm no Pollyanna (I've actually got a reputation as a pessimist, which may be why I've integrated so well into French society), but I've just gotta say it: becoming a mother (and getting married, for that matter) has made me so very happy, and I want le Petit to know that some day.

Here's other half of the secret: it isn't always the case. Not in the moment. It took me two months to feel it for the first time. I still don't feel too joyful sitting on the couch waiting for le Petit's parka-induced temper tantrum to subside, and I'm far from ecstatic at five a.m. when I've been awake for three hours. I also still have bouts of anxiety, some more painful now that I'm worrying for two.

I also know that I am blessed as a mother with a top-notch support team of a super-involved husband, helpful and (in part) local friends and family, and a nanny I trust. Few women are so lucky. So I understand that this happiness isn't automatic, sign-up-for-a-baby-and-happily-ever-after for everyone.

Yet I've come to understand that for me this happiness now forms a sort of baseline. I walk around smiling at least part of the day most every day. If something -- my job, my lack of sleep, a lame attempt to Do Everything or Be Perfect -- disrupts this, I know to make the adjustments I need to to find it again. And when I start worrying about whether I'm making the right decisions for le Petit, whether I'm disciplining him too much or not enough, whether I have chosen the right moment to wean, if he's eating properly or getting to bed early enough or whatever the parenting concern du jour, I tell myself that if I feel this much joy I must be doing something right.

Because whether by osmosis, by imitation, or by just plain keeping on being exactly who he is, I'm pretty sure that le Petit feels it, too.


Isabelle said...

This post is a huge love declaration to Le Petit, Parisienne! How lucky he is to have such a great mom.

Elizabeth Childers said...

This is such a wonderful post! I love your perspective.

Sylvia said...

What a lovely letter not only to Le Petit but to your life! I'm so glad your marriage and his birth has given you so much happiness....

caramama said...

Beautifully written, and a beautiful sentiment. One I am very lucky to share.

Back when my hubby and I got a puppy and I was so worried about raising the dog the "right way" (aka My Way) which wasn't always in line with my husband's way, he said something to me that stuck and held true for the dog and our child. He said, "If we don't get it perfect, that's okay. We love this dog (now applies to child), and because of that, she will turn out wonderfully."

And I also think a lot about if I did die. I keep planning to write the Pumpkin a letter that she can read with my deep thoughts, hopes and dreams that I want to share with her.