Privilege Blog

Writing Their Selves In Sand, Or, Saturday Morning at 7:52am

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.

32 Responses

  1. I think there’s always a disconnect between what we perceive of at the moment and objective reality. I don’t think you can correct these lapses in judgment because, hello, you’re not even away they are happening, but I do wonder if we carry these biaes forward.

    I find myself casting my children (now galloping into adulthood) into the roles they inhabited as children, which might not be appropriate anymore, especially when one child is at college. For instance, my daughter is a chatterbox (and similarly my first born is a girl, my second born a boy) and we always assumed that she was always just more articulate. Actually, now that she’s at college our son is just as articulate, with a really sharp wit to accompany. But as soon as his sister comes home, we all lapse into the established fantasy that she’s the child with things to say. I try to step back and encourage my son to not just give up the floor to her, but he’s in a role, too. It’s frustrating. And we won’t even touch the issue of the roles that PARENTS adopt in this dynamic.

  2. This is a beautiful post Lisa. One of your very best.

    “…you may tell me something at 20 I didn’t expect to hear. And it will be true,” and “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.”

    We are all human. We all struggle for understanding. And, when we move to a new level, we look back at the past with awe at what we were once unable to see.

  3. Oh, Lisa! How many memories the reading of this brought to mind! Our daughters are now 38 and the twins will be 37 at the end of this year. Though we tried our best to understand the unspoken word, we are positive we didn’t “get it” at times. Now that they are adults, we continue to “hear” what they are saying.:-) Have a great week-end, Lisa.

    Oh, you would be proud! We have set out two knock-out rose bushes, a crape myrtle tree, a lilac bush, and another hydrangea! Still working on that garden!

  4. I feel that as long as one remains open the fact that one may have misinterpreted one’s children’s behaviour, it is ok. I speak from my experience as an adult daugther when I say that I did feel that at times that my parent’s idea of myself was different from whom I thought I was. When I grew up I talked to them both about it, and my mom listened and reconsidered. My father didn’t…oh well…he did the best he could with the (emotional) tools he had…
    JK Rowling said in her Harvard adress that the right to blame one’s parents expires when one is old enough to sit behing the wheel and I feel that she is right.

  5. Wonderful and true. I think that this is my favorite post (so far, anyway). It is so easy to attribute emotions and motives to our little ones when we are thinking, talking, and observing in the fragmented ways that mothers of young children survive. My younger son as a toddler was much more active and “into things” than his brother, and, feeling overwhelmed, I picked up the terrible habit of describing him as “wild.” Hearing it once too often during a weekend visit, my father took me aside and sternly told me to stop it, or else his grandson would live up to that description. It made me furious at the time that a man who probably had never changed a diaper was going to tell me how to parent, but, of course, I knew he was absolutely right. My father’s caution changed my attitude and language and, as a result, his grandson’s character.

  6. Oh, how we older sisters are often given the label of “over bearing” or “bossy”! :) I know I certainly was a bit bossy, but often times, my younger sister was instigating trouble. My mother seemed to walk in at just the wrong moment so I’d look guilty!

    I wonder if my parents ever look back like you have just described doing and see things with a different lense?

  7. There’s no one like you, Lisa, for an analytical sifting of the facts with due regard for the underlying bewilderment.

    I struggle with documenting the children – the past is its own creature, nothing I photograph or record will be ‘true’, and the real-time media take up the same quantity of real time in later life, as though exacting their own price. The children you know instinctively in shifting memory are as real as those ones, somehow other, in the videos.

  8. There is so much to love about this post. It is so true that we can and do get it wrong. I feel bad sometimes, then remember I too am still learning and evolving. That’s why I like to keep communicating and why I am proud of having raised two people that enjoy weaving and sharing personal narrative.

  9. In at least a partial answer the Princess Freckles, yes, occasionally they do. I am 21 months older than my brother and I remember him as the instigator. My nephews are grown now, and wonderful young men, but a number of years ago, I saw similar dynamics between them I laughed and mentioned it to my brother. His response? “I am so sorry. I got away with so much bacause I was younger and I didn’t truly understand that until I saw them doing the same things. I owe you an apology.” I must says I was stunned.

  10. In your very special and sincere way, you said what all good mothers discover after years of processing/revisiting/reconsidering… the time of having to do the most important work, the very best way possible with a total absence of experience but with an overload of unconditional love!
    You are wonderful!!!

  11. This post caught me off guard and made my eyes fill up. I sat on the sofa with my 26-year old daughter for a conference call with a wedding coordinator. I watched my daughter ask her the list of questions she’d researched and saw her type the answers into her laptop. All the while I was thinking, “this is my first born, my little girl, who took all her clothes out of her dresser one day and put them all on at once.” And within the next year, I’ll see her put on a wedding dress. Thank you for such a lovely recollection.

  12. Lisa I read all your posts but I feel the ones that you write about motherhood are the most heartfelt and profound.
    This one is rich with imagery, jogs maternal memories and tugs at my heartstrings.

    You really have a gift.


  13. Lisa the beautiful baby photo made my heart leap when I opened your post,you sound to have been a great mother with a great rapport with your children,your words especially about your daughter & son made me very emotional.

    That is what makes you such a warm expressive blogger. Ida x

  14. This post hit incredibly close to home–thank you. We have these myths on our household, retold constantly, and I will admit that while many are hilarious, sometimes they get to me (I was characterized as the spoiled youngest child who got away with too much when my memories of some of these incidents are very, very different). Sometimes it is tough being a child and having other people interpret your own experiences. All that to say that it is genuinely moving to read you looking back and reflecting on where you went right and where you went wrong in your interpretations of who your kids were, and are. I am sure they feel glad to not feel trapped in personas invented for them when they were tiny. It is, to me, a huge virtue to be able to do that, to be so self-aware and to be able to be able to re-interpret. It is probably part of what makes you a great mother. You are always trying to learn who they are.

  15. Since I read and delighted in and was moved by this post yesterday morning, I’ve been trying to analyze why I wasn’t ready to comment here. And I think it’s because it’s made me perceive that while I recognize the kind of memory (and its processing) that you’re experiencing, I’ve left this stage behind as my children (such a ridiculous lack this language has — it continually frustrates me to have no word for adult children, and to keep repeating that oxymoron!) move into their mid-30s. My oldest will soon be 35, my youngest 25, and while I still have piercingly clear memories from their infancy, I share them less and less. I’m not sure what cues have led to this — it may have something to do with them all having wonderful, committed partners for some years now — and a wariness on my part of appearing to make a competing claim. I’m not at all sure that’s it, or perhaps simply that their own performances as adults are so convincing that my presentation of their infant or childhood selves seem less appropriate. Not sure. I just know that while the stories and images certainly come out occasionally, there seem to be “ages and stages” at work here that make it seem more appropriate for me to keep them folded away, treasured, more often than taken out and shared. So that there’s an added layer of memory/loss — that of the original childhood memories, but then also of the years when they were newly-fledged adults. . . new terrain I’m in, all over again. And you helped me see that with your lovely post. All on a Saturday and Sunday. Thanks.

  16. Pretty funny — when I clicked to submit this, I got a WordPress message that said : It looks as if you’ve already said this — message duplication.
    Um. . . . . all of that? I already said all of that?

  17. Ohhh. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I don’t really know what kind of person my daughter is yet, how we’re just watching it play out. And at the same time, I’ve been learning a lot about listening. You sort of just linked the two for me and made me realise I have to keep listening *forever* and never decide that I know what kind of person she is, let her keep telling me.

    Thank you.

  18. I am often impressed when I listen to my daughters’ memories of their childhood what stands out to them and how their version of an anecdote is often so different than my own. I tend to let their version stand…but privately I know some of the painful ways they are replaying “scripts” they saw me play out. Yet another reason to remain quiet. Lovely post.

  19. Thank you Lisa….as someone in the thick of it, I learn and enjoy your posts on motherhood.

  20. I can so appreciate your thoughts and experiences here. I try so hard to step back and see the different sides of my children. They are so different from one another and I sometimes find myself pigeon holing them into the roles I think they will play in life.

    It affects my oldest the most, I think. She is very responsible and organized, so I expect a great deal from her. I have to remind myself that she’s still so young. My youngest is a free spirit and I probably cut her too much slack sometimes, because she’s the baby.

    It’s a constant struggle every day and some are better than others, but I try to do my best by them each and every day.

    Thanks for the post.


  21. Claire – My faith these days is that it’s the effort that’s got to count, and with true, sustained effort mistakes are bound to happen. I can only hope I’m right, and if I’m not, there’s no understudy mom waiting in the wings, right?

    Kcecelia – Thank you very much. It’s almost like as the tide of self recedes in later life one can see things that were hidden.

    Nellie – I love the juxtaposition of hearing your adult daughters and working on the garden.

    Marcela – I agree. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense if everything depended on mothers getting it all right. Since that would be impossible. I think also that we want to raise children who will come back to us and respectfully help us to see them clearly. Blame is useless, even when accurate.

    Town and Country – Thank you very much. I think it’s the hallmark of a wonderful family that your father was willing and able to bring his understanding to your parenting in such a loving way.

    Princess Freckles – I suppose some of us are more prone to examine than others, and it probably depends to an extent on how much you yourself might want it to happen.

  22. Mise – Thank you very much. “The children you know instinctively in shifting memory are as real as those ones, somehow other, in the videos.” Inasmuch as we all share responsibility for reality, I concur. Which is the thing about mothering, isn’t it?

    Susan – You should be proud. That is a wonderful thing.

    DocP – How lovely of your brother. I am just so happy that people can surprise us with good hearts as well as, hmm, the opposite.

    Alesya – Thank you! I searched for you on Facebook to say thank you there, but I am such a FB novice that I could not find you:(.

    Anna – Oh thank you. I think I will try to appreciate my own sincerity, today.

    Loretta – Thank you for your story. I think you may have to include it in your wedding toasts somewhere. All the clothes at once? That s

  23. Hostess – Thank you. Motherhood has certainly been my most heartfelt and profound experience.

    Ida – Isn’t that photo amazing? I love Cara’s work. I am honored to evince emotion in others. It’s a privilege, and I thank you.

    Laura – Thanks. It’s odd how great happiness brings that countervailing poignancy.

    Anna – Thank you. I truly cannot say that I am a great mother. But I am certainly one that tries and keeps trying to do a good job. I feel it was a privilege that they were born to me and I need to deserve it. In fact I am trying now to demand more of them, as they grow up, and it’s hard sometimes in the face of my sense of their magical existence. I hope your professional examination of narrative benefits you yourself.

    Mater – I hope I find myself in your position. I also believe that this is late for me and happening in a flood because during the time of my marriage ending everything else emotional and family-related had to be suspended. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

    Cate – You have such great innate mother sense.

  24. Flo – >>>xoxox<<< Terri - It's a great question, when to remain silent as the mother and when to speak up. Rhonda - Thank you. I am very happy to be of service. Lori - I think the dynamic you describe is a common one, with oldest and younger. At the end of the day, we try to leave room for each kid to grow into who they are, but birth order is a powerful force, and so we have to allow ourselves to surrender in the struggle sometimes:). Maggie - Thank you.

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