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Inhale & Imprint (a letter from a mother to her daughter)

So, not that she’s trying or anything (because she’s not), but Meggie’s the closest to having a kid. There’s so much I want to share, mainly because I don’t want to sound like a midwife-mother during the whole pregnancy. I want her to come to me if she has questions, but there’s a whole slew of stuff I want to say even before she begins. I’m sure I’ll say the same thing (mostly) to the other kids, but Meghann gets to hear it first. Lucky her! 

My dearest Meggie May, 

Meghann Alyssia nursing her Rosie. 

So many things I want to share with you about mommyhood, about raising kids and about attending to your Self as it all unfolds. 

I sat in that first pew at your wedding four years ago, looking at your back in that gorgeous wedding dress and thought, “Wasn’t I just nursing her?” Your sister and brother up there, too; all of you adults.

When did this happen? How did time go so fast? When I was in the mothering part, it all seemed to crawl so slowly, but looking back, it was a blink in time. I’ve often said each year goes twice as fast as the year before and, believe me, it really does. I know, I know. Trite, right? But, true. When I see parents struggling with screaming toddlers, I go over to them and say, “I promise. In a minute, s/he will be married.” They usually sigh with relief, but I know that, in that moment, it seems a forever away. 

I didn’t have the best role models. (Don’t tell my mom I said that!) I was parented pretty crappily… spanked, ignored, yelled at… but, I made it through anyway. And then, when Tristan was born, I mimicked what I was taught. That poor boy, enduring my ignorant stupidity. You know I still apologize to him. 

And then you came along. I learned so much! Bradley classes, La Leche League meetings, Mothering magazine; I was transformed. Well, my parenting sure was. Right from the beginning, you had a delicious A(ttachment)P(arenting) lifestyle, the lifestyle I still embrace –for myself and my clients. 

You were quite the challenge when you were a baby. You cried and cried so much we called you “Megaphone.” I had zero knowledge about coping with a constantly screaming child, but did pretty well considering. Now, as an old mama, I want to impart on new mamas the easier way to handle/cope with constant crying. 

Crying is the baby’s only method of communicating –for a long time. They cry when their foot’s asleep, when they are tired of being on their backs, when they’re hungry, wet and tired. Sometimes they cry because they can’t get in the car, drive to the gym and run on the treadmill for an hour to expend pent up energy. When your baby’s been fed, changed, burped and is being held, but she’s still screaming her head off, it is perfectly fine to shrug, strap her into the sling and go about your day with a noisy chest-buddy. 

Now, there is a difference between regular crying and pain crying and while it can be challenging to decipher them in the beginning, you'll figure it out and know the difference forevermore. Pain crying is high-pitched and shriek-ish. You cannot tune out a pain cry. (You shouldn't tune out any crying, but the pain cry is especially attention grabbing.) Even normal crying absolutely cuts you to the core. Your heart wants to break, the baby seems so miserable. But, I promise, they will be okay. 

One of the best books I ever read and one that made a significant shift in my relationship with you kids was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen& Listen So Kids Will Talk. In there, I learned to talk to your developmental age, not just the age my mind thought you were. You were always mature for your age, but I still needed to remember you had developmental milestones that needed to be crossed and not assume you were always ten years ahead of your time. You were still a child. 

What I didn’t learn until way too late with you kids was patience. I thought I was learning it all along the way. Every year, on New Year’s Day, I would beg for another year of patience. Why is it that we don’t realize how to be patient with young children until they are way beyond childhood? You already know the two major regrets I have with you. (The tears are burning my eyes with shame already and I haven’t even begun to write the words.) 

The first regret I have was when we were in Frankfurt, in the Gibbs Housing. You were… what, two and a half? Three? I can see you sitting in the corner by my desk, next to the balcony door… with scissors in your hands and hair sprinkled on the floor and your lap. I went berserk. I screamed at you as if you were some mongrel dog eating a baby’s leg. What a crazed woman I was! Where did that anger come from? I hadn’t been in nearly enough therapy at that stage to know it was a direct line from my grandmother to you. It seems so stupid now. So incredibly horrible that I would make my child, the flesh of my flesh, feel so scared about her mother. I doubt I made any impact on your sense of self, but I am sure I scared you half to death. This pretty okay person loving you, nursing you, and then I went crazy. For what? For some hair that would grow back? No. No. Please, please don’t do that to your children. When they cut their hair (and they will), please laugh, take the scissors away and hug your son or daughter. Remember how I could have, should have reacted… echo my wishes. Not my actions. 

The second was an episode that shames me more than any other with you kids. Even more than Tristan’s circumcision; that’s a LOT. For some forgettable reason, I was so angry at you (and I assure you, NOTHING you could do warranted my anger) that I began hitting you. You couldn’t have been more than 2.5… right about when you were weaning. I barely remember it, but I was hitting you over and over. And suddenly, Sarah was there, pulling me off of you, pushing me away and grabbing you, holding you, comforting you. She barely knew us at that point, so it was a huge thing that she would just walk in and grab me. I don’t remember if she said anything to me, but I know I cried with humiliation for a long time after that. I forgot about it fairly quickly, but it came up in therapy several times. There is no excuse for that behavior and I know it imprinted your child-psyche; please know I am most humbly sorry for hurting you… not just your body, but your heart. You depended on me for your very life, and there I was, betraying you. I am so sorry. 

There is a lesson in that and it isn’t just not to lose control with your kids, but, if you ever see someone doing that, hurting a child, especially as an out-of-control adult, I beg you to do what Sarah did. Step in. Help the child. Please don’t ever sit complacently by when a child needs you. Especially your own, but also those around you. Our babies need us to protect them and it isn’t always the parent that is able or willing to do that. 

This is sounding like a catharsis of regrets and I don’t want it to be only that. And what’s funny, is you, too, will write a letter like this to your child as she begins considering motherhood. A child’s life rushes so quickly back, flooding the brain with montages of events, crammed into blinks of remembrances. It’s miraculous, how the brain works. 

So, when your child needs to have a procedure done, stay with him/her. Do not EVER let anyone try to separate you from your child if they need something, anything done. Any caring human being keeps mothers and babies together. If the person insists, ask for their supervisor. If they still refuse, find another care provider. Mothers can sit with the babies through MRIs, x-rays (as long as you aren’t pregnant), dental visits, even staying with them in the operating room until they are about to go under anesthesia. If you choose to circumcise (ACK!), please stay with your son while it is done. And if you don’t want to be there, imagine how your son feels! That’s actually a good mantra for parenting in general. 

If you don’t want to be there, imagine how your child feels. I like that. 

In that same vein, there’s the refuse-anything-that-doesn’t-feel-right part of mothering. When you kids were little, I refused all rectal temperatures. Your charts are snottily filled with “mother refuses rectal temp”. I didn’t care. When I learned about perforated bowels from rectal temps, I wasn’t subjecting you to that possibility. Today, rectal temps are very rare outside of life and death circumstances. Haha. I was right. 

I recently had a(n experienced) mom getting her son’s Newborn Screen done, a heel stick that shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. While they were in the lab, the technician was totally inept and kept poking the baby, squeezing his leg and heel and did the test wrong wrong wrong… and was at it for thirty minutes. When I explained to mom how the test was supposed to be done, she told me she was sweating, crying and kept thinking, “this is wrong,” but didn’t say anything, believing they were the experts, so surely they know better, right? IF IT FEELS WRONG, IT PROBABLY IS. This mom felt guilty for not stopping the procedure. I let her know it was a fantastic lesson in listening to your maternal instincts. Guilt is a wasted emotion. Learn and move on.

Listening to your instincts includes not leaving your child alone with someone that feels creepy, even if they are dear, old friends. And listening to your child if they tell you they don’t want to stay with/talk to/be with someone. Please hear them; they don’t have sophisticated language to explain such complex feelings, but they are articulating it in their heart as best as they can. Please don’t make your kids hug someone hello or good-bye unless they want to. I never forced you kids to hug anyone; they will do it when they are ready, when they know the person enough. And, for god’s sake, PLEASE don’t make them kiss people, either. 

Oh, and teach them sign language! I wish wish it had been de rigeur when you were kids. How lucky moms are today that get to talk to their kids long before verbal skills are developed.

For the rest of your life, people will give advice… unsolicited and weird. Brace yourself. Develop a bucketful of responses, from nice to shut-the-hell-up. If you have researched the topic (and, oh aren’t you lucky to have the Net! I had to depend on support groups and books.), do what you and your husband have chosen to do. Even if your mom cringes. All I ask is that you learn about the topic instead of walking in blindly. It can be hard to know when you have all the information to make an informed decision, but looking at the polar opposites can help you find the middle for yourself and your child. And while some decisions are permanent (circumcision, vaccinations, etc.), others can be changed if it doesn’t work out the way you expected it to (sleeping in a crib, limiting nursing, etc.). Don’t hesitate to change the course if you start feeling icky about where you were going. Contrary to what many “experts” say, you do not have to work through the squirmy feelings, you can listen to them. Your kids will thank you. 

Another trite refrain is to expect the unexpected. It’s hard to do that, but is a mindset that can free you should the universe give you kids like your siblings. I promise, you can be as conservative as anything and your kids still turn into pierced and tatt’d rock stars. Watching you all grow up, I’ve often wondered how everything would end up and while there have certainly been times when I’ve questioned one or the other’s sanity, in the end, all of you have carried the same core values through the firestorms. Now that you all are wonderful, productive, amazingly loving adults, I can breathe a sigh of relief that you all did hear what I said to you when it seemed as if you weren’t listening. 

I love your loving (and liberal) attitude towards people different than you. You will be challenged, though, as your kids head into school. There will be parents that irk you no end, teachers you want to smack and books you want to burn. Everything you swear you’d never do, slams into your mind over and over. Don’t be afraid of the feelings and, of course, don’t act on them! But, having intense anger, even hatred, of some aspects of our lives is real and it’s okay to acknowledge it. 

One of the most difficult times to keep your head about you is when someone hurts your child… physically or emotionally. It’s so tempting to try and fix it, but unless safety is a concern, the push and pull of love from playmates is one way we learn to distinguish who to (and not to) trust in the world. By being a gossip, eventually a child learns to keep their mouths shut. By having the boy of their dreams leave them, they recognize those traits in someone else and stay far away from them. It can be frustrating to watch your child make the same mistake over and over again, but some lessons need to be repeated. 

Speaking of repetition. 

Your children will need to be told something 800,000 times before they get it. Just see the number 800,000 in your head and when they have to be told, “Say thank you” twenty times in one day while visiting me, tick off the numbers in your head, knowing you are making headway. If you expect 800,000, if it turns out to only be 600,000, you will be relieved. If it’s more, what’s a few hundred thousand more after 800,000? And you might as well make a tape of these words: “How many times do I have to tell you?” Teach your kids to gently remind you, “800,000.” 

When your kids are two-years old, please do not call them the “Terrible Two’s.” They are the “Terrific Two’s!” Two is the first of many amazing phases where an attempt at separation from mom is made. Many kids start this at 18 months and it typically ends at two and a half, but learning that they are separate from mom has to be kind of scary for them as well as an interesting concept. Of course they don’t have the language skills to say, “Okay, mom. I’m going to lengthen the umbilical cord a little. I’m going to be sloppy and uncoordinated at it, but if you can just be patient, I’ll figure it out eventually.” Instead, they use the word NO! to say “I’m separate.” 

“Do you want some ice cream?”

“No!” (I’m separate from you and can make my own decisions.)

(and without missing a beat) “Yes.” (That’s my decision. I do want ice cream.) 

“Do you want to go to the park or to Lance’s house to play?”

“No” (I’m separate… I’m thinking.”)

“Park!” (I made my decision.) 

If you are able to translate the word “No” in your head to “I can make my own decisions,” the phase where they say no to everything will be a breeze to go through. It’s when parents see the word “no” as a challenge, as an obstinate child, not wanting to do something (whatever it is), that it becomes exasperating. 

On the heels of “No” comes “Mine!” usually accompanied by pulling a toy out of someone else’s hands. There’s a balance between letting kids work these things out and protecting your kid from being whacked in the head with said toy. Parents have to be aware of what their kids are doing, from infancy into adulthood. If you see the toy, midair, your responsibility is to try and catch it before it crowns the intended target. And know there isn’t malicious intent from the hoister, but they do have a concept that if they bean the other kid, they will let go. They’re smart little buggers! 

Another time when parents/you have to be hyper-vigilant is if you have a biter. Biters throw off signals before they chomp down, even if the signals are only a few seconds long. Get to know your child’s signals and be there to remove him/her if they exhibit them. I remember sweeping two of your siblings up numerous times as they began the frustrated cry right before a giant bite happened. Biting is one of those safety issues that demands intervention. And, whatever you do, please do not bite your child back. It makes me shudder that some moms and dads think that teaches their kid not to bite. Not at all. In fact, it reinforces that biting is a way to cope with frustration and anger. Being there to circumvent the bite until the biter is out of that phase is the kindest and most productive action you can take. 

You already know my If-You-Lived-In-the-Jungle analogies, but they bear repeating. 

Babies don’t know they were born in “civilization.” Their bodies don’t know anything about clocks, cribs or separate bedrooms. Babies are hard-wired to cry when they’re not near their moms/caregiver; if they were left in a crib under the next tree, they’re complete fodder for the local tiger’s dinner. Crying is a survival mechanism and it’s why you will feel the pull (not a mere tug) to go to your baby when she cries. Ignoring that pull, the instinct in you diminishes. While there are cry-it-out folks who orchestrate the elimination of that drive, isn’t it a sad moment for the baby when mom severs the in-born need to caretake? 

None of this means you live only for the baby. You must remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, you will be no good to anyone else in the family, the baby especially. So, pee when you need to (can I tell you how many new moms get a UTI from holding their bladder until the baby’s asleep?). Eat when you’re hungry (have a giant plate of snacks in the fridge at all times so you can sail by, grab something and keep on walking while you pop it in your mouth). 

And drink LOTS of water. When you’re nursing, you’ll be thirstier than you could ever imagine… and the urge to sip comes just as you latch the baby on… so always have a huge thermos/pitcher of water next to you. Once you are nursing the second baby, make sure you have a water bottle with a straw, something that the toddler can’t make a mess with if he makes the grab and run with it. 

When you’re nursing, smell your baby’s head. Smell and imprint it into your heart. I can smell you kids’ heads even now, from this far away… and when I’ve smelled you as I hugged you in the past, you do smell exactly the same as you did when you were in my arms. There is nothing more soul opening than the scent of your new baby’s head. Inhale and imprint. 

My dearest Meghann, I fear I’m verging on the edge of advice overload, so I’m going to end for now, but expect this might be a multi-part’d, on-going letter. I hope you’re able to use some of this mother wisdom someday… you and Aimee and Tristan, too. If Darren ever gets another computer, I hope he’s able to learn some stuff, as well. 

I have so much more to say. I could talk with you forever. I love you more than any words, any actions could ever convey. Know, my sweet Meggie May, how happy, how amazingly happy you have made your mother. Thank you for choosing me to be your mommy. It has been a wondrous journey. Thanks for your patience with me as I’ve learned and thank you for all the lessons you’ve taught me. You’ve prepared me for grandmotherhood perfectly. 

Now, get busy!

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Reader Comments (13)

I am 25, and my husband and I are trying to conceive. I can't wait to share the journey of motherhood with my own mother, and this sounds so much like something she might say to me. Beautiful, thank you for posting!

November 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

"When you’re nursing, smell your baby’s head. Smell and imprint it into your heart. I can smell you kids’ heads even now, from this far away… and when I’ve smelled you as I hugged you in the past, you do smell exactly the same as you did when you were in my arms. There is nothing more soul opening than the scent of your new baby’s head. Inhale and imprint. "

Yes!! I just noticed that you used that as the title too.

November 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I love it, love it, love it. So glad I finally read it! So much I wish I would have known (and my kids are still so small).

Did you see Mamma Mia? "Slipping through my fingers" makes me cry. The time goes by so fast, doesn't it?

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnastasia

What a beautiful letter! Your daughter is lucky indeed.

Btw, what DO you do about a biter? My 11 month old is terrible, and I'm the only one he bites

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commentererin

I LOVE this post...I know I am still so early into mommydom with my 4 & 6 year olds, but I know compassion and forgiveness for myself as I stumble some days is the toughest and most ciritcal for me to keep going. My childhood was challenged, and my role as Mother I play looks NOTHING like the role my mother played. I am so grateful for the women I have met in my life that showed me there is WAY more than one way to parent. That said, I had to learn that support is great.. but not required that it comes from other people... In fact the noise of other people can be a great distraction form hearing your own mommy instincts that need to be honored and followed. I can't tell you the number of times I have echoed in my own mind a bit of advice I was given years ago.. "Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one." Let go of what you were told you would or should be as a family...and just be. The good news and bad news of any parenting moment good or bad is that it won't be like this for long. I have learned that though I am fallible, I am stronger for my challenges overcome and have stopped apologizing for the scars that I have earned. If nothing else I know I can confidently and thouroughly teach tollerance, resilience, and that the power of laughter and tears for us mothers is immeasurable and (when we are blessed with good friends) a gift us womenfolk give to eachother frequently ;) Love to you Barb, always.

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

This is beautiful. I'm about to embark on my own life as a mother, so it couldn't be more timely for me, and I'm sure for many others as well. I want to read it again and again and again.

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinnette

This is such a beautifully written letter. I am 37 weeks pregnant and could read this letter again and again. I am the youngest of 4 and the only girl in my family. My mother passed away when I was 16 and I look at this letter and think of some of the things she would have shared with me now that I am preparing for parenthood . This is too wonderful! It has been an inspiration to me! I definitely plan on writing something for my baby Eden Noelle for her to have when her time comes!

Bless you!

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTiffany

Oh my, this was so beautiful. Thank you for sharing this!

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBri

There, finally got to reading it! I am so behind on my blogs, oh mah gah. Anyhow.

This is wonderful, thank you for sharing your words with the world. :)

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStassja

Barbara, thank you so much for sharing this post with us. It is a great reflection of the wisdom you have learned and you continue to pass onto others. You are a truly remarkable teacher, mother, friend, and one day grandma. I see Meggie May tomorrow as they get ready to lay the foundation on her first home. IWe are so lucky to know her and you and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the lessons you have taught me. God Bless you

November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Saenz

I LOVE this! I have a little one and a teenager and three in between, and this is just beautifully helping me in this odd time of nostalgia and still in the baby years...it DOEs go so fast and there ARE guilty guilty memories (although they're never quite as bad, once confessed, as the Mom thinks them to be!), its all such a learning game, such a ride, as we grow up with our children...

Thank you for this, it was affirming and poignant and precious and true and helpful. Like you!

December 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHouseFairy

This is lovely, I hope I can remember it in parts as I raise my baby.

December 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJude

From a 6 times Mum's point of view I just had to comment on your blog...

This is fantastic wonderful advice! I found my way here from a link on my daughter (pride and joy)'s blog Jemjabella. Jem sings your praises and I can clearly see why. Your post is incredibly well written, and wonderfully wise yet funny too. I've now started wading my way through your back posts as I find your outlook on life to be so inspiring and filled with great advice. Thank you for sharing your life and family with us.

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJo

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