Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Kids Don't Know

When you're pregnant, people say vague things: "It's so hard!" and "It's so awesome!" and "You'll never sleep again!" The third one isn't true. Mostly. But nobody ever tells you about the mystery of child's knowledge--or lack thereof.

At first, what your child knows is survival: She knows how to drink, sleep, pee, poop, cry, and occupy your every thought. She knows how to get you to do a lot of things you don't want to do: wake up many times a night, stop showering, nurse round-the-clock, and give up your social life for an extended period of time--unless you count "chatting up other moms in the pediatrician's waiting room" to be social life. It's a good and clever system because if she weren't so lovely and fabulous and heart-stealing, you'd probably return her to the baby store.

As she grows, she reveals how wildly and rapidly her brain is growing: She learns how to roll over, sit, stand, walk, talk, eat, feed herself, tell you what she wants, entertain herself for short bursts of time. We didn't instruct Hadley how to do any of these things. We helped her, sure, but we never said, "Hadley, here's what you need to know to walk." She just figured it out. Tucked in her DNA was this knowledge, and it sprouted forth just when the time was right.

I assumed that this would be how most of her development would be. She would know things about herself and the world when it was time to know them. I would watch her unfold like a little flower that I just had to water regularly with love and attention. I was wrong.

Once kids get basic skills under their belts, they turn into wandering maniacs who seem totally ill-equipped to function in the world. (I say this with deep and abiding love for my daughter, who is the cutest and funniest little maniac I've ever met.)

I have a good friend who has three great kids--twin seven-year-olds and a five-year-old. Before I was a parent, she said to me, "Kids don't know anything unless you tell them." I thought, "Really? That can't be true. Surely they come with some set of functional knowledge." She was mostly right.

Case in point: Two-year-olds don't know that it's a bad idea--for their health and their social lives--to lick another person's face. Who would have guessed?

Hadley and I were playing pretend the other day, and she decided to be a dog. She crawled around the floor and then right up to me and slurped my cheek. I love her desperately and deeply, and I was disgusted. My first thought: "Ah! I have the kid who licks! She's going to be the outcast at pre-school! The licking kid! I HAVE THE LICKER!"

But I kept my cool. "You may not lick other people's faces," I said, thinking, "Given a billion years, I could not have guessed that I would have to make a rule about licking." She replied, "Can I lick their arms?"

It's a valid question, if you show up in the world with absolutely no knowledge of licking etiquette.

"No, no licking other people's arms or feet or anything. No licking at all."

"Can I lick dogs?"


"But dogs lick me."

"Yes, that's how they kiss."

"That's how I kiss, too."

"No, people kiss with their lips."

"But I am a dog."

"You are just pretending to be a dog."

"I can lick because I am pretending to be a dog."

"No, Hadley. No licking, even when you are pretending to be a dog."

"Do cats lick?"

[At this point, I was thinking, "Wrap it up, Hilary! Wrap it up! The longer this goes on, the more loopholes she's going to find!" Kids show up knowing how to find loopholes, even if they don't know that licking is gross. But because I was trying to be patient and instructive, and because I want Hadley to ask me questions about how the world works, I answered.]

"Cats mostly lick themselves."

The neon light that sometimes flashes above my head went off: ROOKIE! ROOKIE! ROOKIE!

She licked her own arm.

"Hadley, you may not lick yourself."

"But I am a cat."

"No, no licking. No licking you. No licking anyone else. People do not lick. Do you understand?"

"Why can't I lick?"

"Because it's yucky. And that's the rule."

So, readers, I did it: I pulled a variation of the "I'm the Mommy and I said so" card. Because the alternative was to talk about microbes and sickness and that cats only live about 15 years, which is probably related to their self-licking.

Our days are full of dozens such conversations, and I'm frequently amazed at how often I have to say the most ridiculous stuff, like it's totally normal:

"Please don't put boogers in your belly button."

"No, rocks won't get cold in the snow. Please leave them outside."

"Yes, you have to wear pants today." [Insert Hadley's objection that has something to do with legs being "too sick" for pants.] "Wearing pants will help your legs feel better."

"We don't put flowers in our mouths."

"You may look at yourself in the mirror, but please don't kiss the mirror." [A rule that applies only to mirrors at places other than our home, which is apparently very confusing and impossible to remember.]

"What are you eating?" [Random answer.] "We don't eat [whatever it is that she has found to eat in the nook of her car seat or from the couch cushion]. We only eat food from the kitchen or a restaurant."

So tell me, how exactly are two parents--a mere TWO PARENTS--supposed to cover all of the rules of life? We cannot cover all the things Hadley needs to know. Who would ever have thought to mention to "no licking" rule? It's a given, like gravity, old men in Speedos, and the chaos of the Whole Foods parking lot. It's part of the way the world works.

When Hadley was a baby, I was thinking big thoughts about teaching her to love, to have faith, to seek truth, to be honest. I still think about those things in the still, quiet hours (all eight of them a month)--when I'm not worried about whether she has boogers stashed in her belly button.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Extraordinary

My mom sent me an email last weekend--which is kind of funny, really, because I see her at least twice or three times in a typical week. But she sent this little email to say, "I bet normal feels pretty good right now."

I had chucked the book manuscript to my editor around lunchtime on Friday. Of course, I just attached my 300+-page wonder to a cheery email and hit "send." But in truth, it felt like heaving off 700-pounds of paper and watching it fly far, far to the east.

I almost cried when I finished.

My logical self knew it would be done one day, but all those nights away from Jason and Hadley, all those interviews (thousands!), all those hours writing and revising and obsessing (I am gifted at obsessing), all those days of wishing I hadn't agreed to do the work--they made my more emotional self wonder if I'd ever really finish. I was like Sisyphus and his stupid rock. Every time I finished a chapter, a new one waited to be written.

And then I returned to "normal," to being a wife and a mom and a daughter, sister, friend--and having time and energy to spend with the people I love. Of course, this isn't normal at all. It's extraordinary.

I will always wonder if I should have turned down this project. It was very, very hard on our family (in part because my original timeline shrunk from about 16 months to about nine). It broke my heart often, and it brought us a lot of stress. I mean, I know stress almost as well as I know chocolate--both are specialties of mine--and 2011 was the most stressful of my life. I missed days with Hadley, days I will never, ever get back. I can't think about this fact too much because first, there's not a thing I can do about it now, and second, letting myself wallow would only leave me in the emotional muck.

There is no Hollywood ending here. Some people will love the book. Some people will criticize it. Some colleges will be furious that they're no longer included. Some will be delighted to discover they've been added. Matt Lauer will not call me to share my hard-earned wisdom on the "Today Show." I will have made very little money for a whole lot of work.

I don't belong to the club of people who jump to the cliché, the Hallmark-ish ending. Sometimes, I think we're left to wonder. God doesn't promise us answers to all of our questions, and he makes it pretty clear that His work is sometimes (often) mysterious to us. I have to be okay with that right now.

But if there is a pretty little bow to tie to the end of this tale, it's that I see the extraordinary in the mundane. I longed for it for a year. When I snuggle up Hadley at the end of the day and she sings her made-up songs (in her "princess falsetto" voice), I am deeply grateful. When she won't eat her dinner or she becomes a one-woman wrecking crew or she runs away yelling "naked baby" as soon as I pull off her pajamas to dress her in the morning, I feel the sweetness of those moments in ways I might not have if I hadn't lost a few (a lot) of them last year.

I'm not a soul easily settled, but I feel settled now. I hope it lasts. If so, the hardness and sadness and exhaustion of last year will have been worth something far, far better than my name on a book.