Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The necessity of getting what you want and what you need

My crew of shorties rolling three deep.

It was Valentine's Day and at pickup the kids were beaming. Toting bags stuffed with cards and candy from their friends. 

There was a kindergartner - a little boy with big grey eyes fringed by thick lashes - who always dotes on Annie. If she's in the stroller, he'll skip over and stare down at her, gently stroking her hair and commenting about how cute she is. If I'm wearing her in the Baby Bjorn, he'll play with her feet. Sometimes I'll kneel so he can talk to her. 

On Valentine's Day, the little boy spotted Annie and bounded over to where I was  holding her in the Bjorn. He held up his hands and she grabbed his fingers. He was smitten. He wanted to give her a hug. My quads burned as I half squatted down for him to give her a squeeze. I started to stand up, but he reached for her again, though not for a hug this time.

The din of all the sugar-filled kids faded as I watch this boy, so earnest and so sweet, fixate on my little Annie. He extended his pointer finger toward her head and I worried he might poke her. Instead, he used it to trace a tiny heart on her forehead. I couldn't see her face as he did this. But she wasn't wiggling or crying. And me? I was enamored by the tenderness of the gesture. How gentle he was. How focused. How intent.

He told me he wanted to come to my house so he could have a playdate with Annie. Annie who gnaws on her toys rather than playing with them. Who would most likely try to grab fistfuls of his hair and squirm out of his lap. He wanted to walk with us as we left school. When we separated at the corner, he yelled goodbye to Annie from across the street.

Later that evening, I smiled at a post my friend Beth made on Facebook:

"Everyone should experience Valentines Day like a kindergartener. Love everyone you see. Be completely in love with love."

I thought of Annie's little friend. What Beth says is so true. 

I remembered the day a couple weeks back at pickup when it was snowing. Giant, round flakes. Snow globe flakes. As the kindergartners walked out the door, their eyes gazed skyward. They opened their mouths and stuck out their tongues. They staggered toward their parents this way. Eyes up, tongues out. I caught the eye of their teacher, a neighbor and friend. We smiled at each other with complete, unspoken understanding that the smile was for these small people and their unadulterated joy and how lucky we were to be witnesses.

"Be completely in love with love." 

Live completely in the wonder of each minute.

I think about Annie and our small, quiet days together. 

I think about how she inspires so much love in me. And so much love in others- like that kindergartner and Lily's friend who calls herself Annie's, "Fairy God Sister." And the cashiers at Target and the strangers at the grocery store. All pausing in their day to smile at her and make goofy faces and goofy noises in the hopes that she'll smile back. She mostly doesn't smile back. But she doesn't cry either. She locks eyes with them or studies their faces. They seem contented by these interactions. As if it's broken the monotony of their days.

"She's so cute," strangers tell me. "She's adorable." "Look at those dimples!" "Her eyes are so bright."

And I don't deny any of it. I stand there with a dumb grin on my face. My eyes a little watery. Carrying her around, I feel like a peacock with my tail feathers on display. Or a pro wrestler hoisting one of those giant victory belts over their head. I have zero humility when it comes to her. 

Annie is my prize, I feel like. This miraculous thing I won. Looking at her fills me with gratitude. 

A gorilla mother and her baby.
The grand prize winning photo in the
Nature's Best Photography exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

The thing with Annie is, I didn't think she was a possibility. Not because of any physical problems. I'm fortunate to come from a line of very fertile women. I know how lucky I am in this regard. I didn't think she was a possibility because of a conversation Brad and I had on a different Valentine's Day- years ago. Some time after we had Jovie. 

We were having dinner at an Italian restaurant we liked and I said playfully, "When do you want to have our third baby?" and Brad more or less shut down. He told me he didn't think he wanted to have another child. That two seemed to be enough and that he was worried about the financial burden of another child and that it would be a struggle to put two kids through college, much less three. We'd need a bigger house, a bigger car. 

I tried to explain that I'd come from a big family and had always envisioned having at least three children. But the whole conversation felt very final. Like a verdict. Like there was no room for discussion. So I kind of shut down, too. I've never been good at difficult conversations. My family growing up was so traditional. It always seemed as if Dad made the major decisions and Mom followed suit. As much as I knew that dynamic didn't work for me, I still fell back into old patterns. 

And anyway, my arguments for a third child felt feeble against Brad's more practical concerns. I felt as if I seemed greedy. Like I was asking for another scoop of ice cream or an expensive toy. I told myself to be happy with what I already had (and who wouldn't be happy with two such funny, kind little girls). I needed to be pragmatic and move on.

But I never stopped wanting that third baby. It weighed on me, this baby. I couldn't put into words why I felt so strongly about growing our family just a little more- only that I felt like we weren't quite complete. Like I wasn't fulfilling some deep part of myself.

I mourned the loss of this child that only ever existed in my imagination. I held on to the baby gear for awhile, but eventually gave it away or sold it at yard sales. Keeping it around when it would never be used was depressing. But seeing it go didn't really bring me much comfort or acceptance either. 

Lily and Jovie started preschool. We moved to Virginia. Then in what seemed like an instant they were both in school full time. It felt as if the door to the little years was slammed shut. My heart broke. 

I'd like to say that Brad and I had a grownup conversation in which I laid out my case for another child and we talked through the logistics and I won him over. 

What really happened was that as my resentment came to a head, and Brad knew there was a wedge cracking the foundation of our relationship. He started to thaw on the topic. It wasn't that he came to see the logic in a third child- is there any logic to having children?- but that he finally saw how important it was to me. I don't think it hurt that we'd moved to a neighborhood filled with families of five. It didn't appear as if the third kid led to ruin- these families seemed to be functioning (or maybe dysfunctioining) just fine. 

Brad is a worrier with the heart of a caretaker. I knew that plunging into fatherhood for a third time was out of his comfort zone. I know that he felt anxious about the mechanics of it all- resuming life with an infant when we seemed to be reaching a cruising altitude with the other two. Shouldn't we just focus on offering the two that we had the best lives we could? He made a fair point. Knowing this about him made him coming around on the idea of growing our family an even bigger gift. Because I knew what it cost him in peace of mind. 

But watching Brad with Annie now- he loves her. And what's not to love, really? He sees that she's filled a hole in our family. He's embraced a third round of fatherhood as graciously as he did the other two. He sees that it's doable. And he got that minivan he'd been lusting after for years.

Annie was our missing piece.

I've been thinking about the idea of want. How want seems to come with an asterisk of negativity. How we are taught that want is reserved for excess and nonessentials. 

I'm in agreement with these basic principles of want. But I also believe that there are wants that are also needs. 

Humans have these deep aches for things that might seem unnecessary in our career-centric, consumer-driven culture. We've come to believe that there are certain wants that are more acceptable than others. A nice house, for instance. A nice car. Vacations. The deluge of knick-knacks and throw pillows and housewares that arrive with each new season at Target. 

Women, and I think mothers especially, are told it's OK to want. But that our wants should be limited to particular things. 

We're told that given all we do to raise the children and keep the house and fulfill the spouse we deserve to "treat ourselves." But the things we're trained to want aren't necessarily the things that will nourish us. In the name of "self-care" we're told to get a pedicure or buy that pair of boots or change our hair or get a massage or splurge on the venti latte. All these fleeting, one-off things that stop feeding us as soon as a nail gets chipped or our roots start showing.

While any of these things are nice, I'd argue they're band-aids for the things we really want. And also the things we really need. That when we can fulfill the deeper things that meet both needs and wants, all the other stuff sort of ends up in the dust bin. 

As humans, as women, as mothers, we need and want to feel heard. To create. To share our visions. To share our wisdom. To feel as if we're fulfilling our purpose in the grander plan. 

It sounds trite, but I think of Moana, who knew she was destined for something outside of her island without knowing precisely what it was. She was called to the sea. 

I think of Beth (i.e. my sweater buddy!)* on this week's episode of "This is Us." 

Beth's character has been adrift for months after losing her job. A visit home to see her mother stirs up memories of her childhood. How her father called her his "little island girl who danced before she could walk." How she used to dance ballet. How through high school she'd trained to become a principal dancer in a prestigious company but then her father died and her dream died, too. Instead, she went on to college and a successful career as an urban planner. She remembers her love of dance and is lucky enough to have a husband who understands the value of need-wants. Randall drops her off at a studio where she dances for the first time, I guess, since she was a teenager. Her face while dancing- it was as if she'd found herself again. As if she'd come home to herself.


That is the thing I'm talking about.

That is the need-want we were all put on this Earth to fulfill. 

I don't believe it's a selfish thing, either. It's not about greed or self absorption or running away from the life you have. It doesn't have to be about upheaval and overturning all you've already created. It's about honoring the person you are called to be in the space you're in. Adjusting as need be. 

When we as individuals tend to our hearts in this way, it is better for all of us, I think. It is  generative. 

It is an act of love for ourselves and what comes out of its fulfillment is an act of love for all of creation.     

The vision board I made with my sisters recently.

My sister Laura and I talk about dreams we have. There's that trip to Tahiti (obviously) and the one where we find a beautiful piece of land and create a gathering place for tired women to come and unload their burdens and maybe get closer to figuring out the nature of their own need-wants.

For my sister Sarah it's art and working with animals. Same with Jen, I think.

Since childhood writing has been something I've felt called to do. Not that there's been a disembodied voice from the heavens telling me to write. Only that there's been an ever-present, insistent, bossy voice in my own head telling me to write. And write. And write. And to keep doing it even when it feels pointless. Sometimes that voice finds helpers in the form of other people- encouraging me to continue doing the thing I know I'm supposed to do when I'm filled with self doubt. Sometimes the voice goes dormant for a time. But it always returns. Like a migrating bird. 

For me, being a mother is also a need-want. Even when I was young, I knew I was destined to drive a minivan (though I spent years in denial of the actual minivan part). Each of my children have expanded my heart and helped me be more aware of daily joys. Re-reading, this feels like an understatement. 

The world needed Lily, Jovie  and  Annie, too. Children inspire love in the people they come across. From besotted kindergartners to strangers on the subway. They soften our hearts even if for a moment. Having children is an act of hope and an act of defiance against a world that feels so cynical.

My girls are a remedy. A salve.

Just like poetry and art and music and dance.

Annie has helped me understand that. 

Just like as with Lily and Jovie, I'm anxious to see what her need-wants will be. Where she will fall into herself.

She's different than the older two. Maybe a little more serious. A little more introverted. 

She is content to crawl around the floor looking for this or that to play with. She doesn't fuss at me when I redirect her from the boundless dust bunnies littering our floors back to her own toys  and then again from the basket of cat toys she's raided for the tenth time in a morning. She doesn't fuss when I lay her down in her crib so I can get dressed for the day. She'll amuse herself with a toy  and often fall asleep for an hour or two. 

She doesn't even fuss much when she wakes up. I'll hear her babbling on the monitor. When I go upstairs to get her, she'll be on her tummy snuggling with her toy elephant or playing with a blanket. "Hi Baby!" I say and she pops her head up like a baby harp seal and a smile spreads across her face like the sun cresting a hill. 

She knits our family together into a tight little circle. We all gather around when she's laughing. We all take turns kissing her cheeks and smoothing her silky hair.

Around her, we're all like the kindergartners catching snowflakes on our tongues. Silly and buoyant and perfectly present. 

She inspires us to trace hearts on everyone's foreheads. 

To expand on the love she's laid before us. To fill the world with it.

We're all better when we chase these sorts of needs. These wants. They're the things most worth seeking. Most worth fighting for. Most worth waiting for.


*Because I'm a dork: Here's young Beth on "This is Us" wearing a very bold fuchsia sweater with gold and turquoise accents with a white turtleneck.

And here's me, circa 1991ish wearing the same  bold fuchsia sweater with a white turtleneck.

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