It’s hard to remember life before my first baby. I know the details and can recall much of it, but I don’t feel connected to it in the same way I do to my memories since adding Aden to my world. Maybe that sounds strange, but the transformative effect of having children has added a depth to my experiences that leaves many other things that preceded it slightly hollow. In many ways that’s good. The angst and despair that came with my middle school years is interesting to me now, but doesn’t cause me real pain anymore. Some of that is simply time allowing me to change, and I’m not the same person today that I was when those particular struggles were everything. It’s like remembering a good book that I can analyze because the main character isn’t really me. But I’ve noticed that a lot of the things from my past that still hurt do so because of the added dimension of knowing my children. Losing my grandfather back in high school was traumatic, and remains so but in a different way. I mourned then because I missed him. I mourn now because I wish he had lived to meet my husband, and he would have loved my kids.
I wasn’t much of a baby person before I had my own. I liked small children, but babies didn’t interest me much. They seemed either dull or exhausting. When I had Aden I fell completely in love. Even though I was inexperienced I felt like I knew what to do. It was like the first time I tried teaching violin lessons. I’d fretted about how to do that for a long time, but the moment I was actually doing it my instincts kicked in and I was confident about how to handle it. The thing that was lovely about the small baby stage was that it was so simple. Aden was healthy and slept and ate well, so there was not much to do but change her and feed her and bathe her and put her in little outfits. I loved hearing the doctor say how wonderful she looked at each appointment. But I mostly loved the feeling of being enough. There was so much in life that I was never going to do as well as I should, but to be able to calm my baby by holding her close and to know she was completely content was wonderful. I loved that feeling of being enough.
As Aden got older and started to roll and crawl and walk and dance, the challenges grew, but everything got more and more interesting. There is so much to marvel at in toddler land, and despite the frustrations the overwhelming cuteness of children just beginning to explore the world is remarkable. Then I had my beautiful Mona and learned that my ability to love was so much bigger than I had ever believed it could be. It’s hard to imagine after the first baby that you could ever love anyone as much, but miraculously it happens. Aden taught me what love is, and Mona taught me that love can be infinite.
Around the time I was feeling dazzled by all of Aden’s new abilities and was consumed with baby love for my Mona, I remember having a rare moment to talk alone with my Aunt Charlotte. Charlotte is an amazing person. She’s a family court judge in Ohio, and she tackles difficult issues with intelligence and compassion. Every time I hear people complaining about how we shouldn’t leave things up to the discretion of judges, I think to myself that I would completely trust Charlotte. My aunt was visiting my home in MIlwaukee for the holidays, and both of her grown children were there, too. Watching her talk and laugh with my cousins made me wonder about what parenting must be like at that stage, when you are involved but not in charge of your children’s lives anymore. It seemed a little sad to me, because it was so far removed from where I was and I loved where I was so much. So I asked her, “What’s it like to have your children all grown up?” And Charlotte looked at me with a characteristic brightness in her eyes that anyone who knows her is familiar with, and said with great sincerity, “It’s wonderful.” I still couldn’t quite grasp it, since I love my cousins, but watching them didn’t seem as entertaining as all the adorable things tiny children do, so I asked her to elaborate. Charlotte agreed that babies and toddlers are sweet, but she said being able to have adult conversations with her own children, and to share ideas and laugh and disagree and learn was exciting and remarkable. She didn’t mourn what was past, she wholeheartedly enjoyed each new phase. Charlotte has a way of seeing the world with a genuine sense of appreciation and joy despite whatever ugliness might threaten it that somehow does not cross the line into being a Pollyanna. It’s a trait I admire.
I think about that particular conversation often as my children continue to grow and change, and I realize how much more I enjoy them all the time the more they can do. I loved the newborn phase with each of my children, and the toddler stage, but there are tradeoffs. I miss the baby hugs, but I don’t miss the lack of sleep. I miss the cute tiny clothes, but I don’t miss having to dress my children all the time. Each new stage brings new and wonderful things that until you arrive there don’t look as if they could possibly be as good as parts of where you are at any given moment. Some things you have to wait and experience first hand before they can develop any true meaning.
The stage where I am now with Aden is particularly special. She’s eight, almost nine, and she’s lovely. She drives me up the wall when she makes me repeat myself over and over, and she’s easily distracted, and she’s lazy about some things, but that just means she’s a real kid and not some kind of pod person. And the thing I’m struck by at the moment is how much nicer it is to have someone be with you when it is by choice. When you have an infant or a toddler with you every minute it’s because you have to. It can be nice, but it can also be a little like holding one another hostage. Aden is old enough to have a say now. She doesn’t have to be right in my line of sight every moment. If she’s standing next to me and holding my hand it’s because she wants to. Most of my life as a parent up to now has involved deciding for my children where they will go and what they will do. Now we’re in new territory. Aden often sets up her own play dates and then checks in with me or her dad to see if it’s okay. If she doesn’t want to go with me to the store or on other errands she usually doesn’t have to.
Recently I had a concert with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra celebrating the 110th anniversary of the formation of the group. (The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra is the oldest organization of its kind in North America and great fun to be a part of.) The concert was a bit of a drive away and started at 8:00pm. Mona was scheduled to go to a sleepover party that night, and we lined up a babysitter for Quinn, but I asked Aden to decide what she wanted to do. She could stay home with the sitter, or go to the concert with her dad. She chose to come to the concert.
This touched me more than I can say. Aden’s been to her fair share of my concerts. I love seeing her in the audience when I perform, but she’s never been there because she specifically chose to go. She was there because we decided she would be there. This time was different. She asked if she could bring her pink bunny to hold while she listened to the music, I told her that was fine, and she was excited. She waved to me during sound check, she hung on my elbow back in the break room, she helped herself to cheese and crackers and grapes and looked pleased to be among the other musicians milling around before the show started. She sat in the front row next to her dad (ironically in the one spot they couldn’t see me most of the time because there was a stand in the way, but oh well). Aden hung in there long after her normal bedtime and clapped enthusiastically after every number and was genuinely pleased to be at my concert. It was wonderful, and easily one of my favorite performances ever, even if I didn’t play my mandola as well as I personally would have liked. On an emotional level it was very satisfying.
I still can’t fathom how having all my kids grown up and moved out will do anything other than break my heart, but I believe my aunt that it will somehow be great. I couldn’t have pictured the joys of Aden being a third grader until we got here. I love that girl. And what’s even better is that I know she loves me, too. By choice.
(Me and my Aden during intermission at the mandolin concert, photo by Mary Kehoss)