My daughter B was born on July 4th in Washington, DC. Six weeks later one of my dearest friends, K, who lived across the country, had a little girl. K and I spent the next 3 months of maternity leave keeping each other company via the telephone. We shared so much — breastfeeding, sleep issues (the babies’s and ours,) anxiety over communicating with such a nonverbal creature. K was completely nonjudgmental of my complaints — I was bored, I was lonely, I was so bored. We kept each other laughing through the tedium of diaper changes and tummy time. I admired her level of enthusiasm for the task, and I needed her faith in me. We were in this motherhood thing together.
When the girls were a year old, K, her daughter and her husband visited her in-laws on their farm in New England. I flew up with B for a reunion. K picked me and B up at the airport and drove us into the green countryside, with its sunflowers actually swaying in the breeze. It was my first trip alone with B. I was thrilled to be out of the heat, and to finally meet K’s daughter.
B walked at 8 months. So by the time she was a year she was hugely confident on her feet (this was indeed a sign of things to come.) K’s daughter was just starting to crawl. B was a live wire. From the moment she was born she had electricity pulsing through her body that I could feel even while she nursed or slept. She was charged up and ready to move. But she was late to speak. And she wasn’t interested in focusing on anything static. She didn’t build with blocks, she plowed through blocks, knocking over what other kids built.
When we got to the farm K’s husband was sitting on the porch swing with their daughter in his lap. I helped B out of the car and then sat down to say hello to K’s daughter. Her husband stood up, handed the baby to my friend and offered to show my daughter the animals in the barn. B took his hand and skipped off. K needed to check something inside the house and asked me to hold her daughter. I settled the baby into my lap. She looked at me with her searching brown eyes. She reached up, squeezed my nose and then squealed with laughter. She was utterly engaging, but she was also a sack of potatoes. Even while she babbled at me, her body was calm and relaxed. Quiet. And as B came running back from the barn I realized that for all we had shared in that year K and I were experiencing motherhood in totally separate ways. It was not at all the same. This was a revelation.
Since Milo’s illness emerged I am reminded every single day that my experience of motherhood is different from other mothers’s, even as everyone’s experience differs because kids differ and women differ, mine differs more.
And, since having children, I have come to understand how little I knew about human development. Most of what I know about Freud and Jung I earned from literary theory and art history. When B was born I would have defined “executive function” as a cocktail party for CEOs. Now I know it’s what I lack when I’m at the shoe store. This lack is why Milo will stamp 145 envelopes, sitting on the post office floor, carefully placing the stamps in the corner of the envelope, just so, for $5, but never collect. And if I pay him without being asked, a lack of executive function is why he leaves the money sitting around. He never puts it in his piggy bank.
I love houseguests but I don’t encourage them. Milo’s unpredictability makes it too stressful. But when a friend with 3 kids asked if she could stop by this summer on her way home from the beach, I said yes. I wanted to see her and her kids and I figured, what the hell. She’s a mom and a nurse midwife. She knows all about Milo. She’ll understand. And if Milo scares the hell out of her and her kids, they’ll have a lot to talk about during the second half of their car trip.
Her three children are unimpeachably wonderful. Just the sweetest, smartest, feistiest kids I’ve ever met. They get along well with each other and with strangers. My friend mothers them with ease, but also with a healthy dose of sarcasm and exhaustion. A kind of mothering I admire.
Her kids were great with mine. And even in the heat we managed to have fun at the pool, in the bookstore, playing games, cooking and eating. I found this reassuring. But what moved me was watching her 9 year old son, L. He’s the anti-Milo. He’s calm, he’s focused, he’s articulate about his feelings. And he has an abundance of executive function. He will choose to wait for 2 marshmallows rather than have one now. Sure, he’s a kid. He will perseverate on a potty word, or stall his shower, or antagonize his little sister. But he has remarkable control over his actions. He is patient. And his frustration and anger tolerance is high. It’s all remarkable to me. Not to my friend. She has three children. And none of them are Milo.
When L helped his mother repack the car, standing in the inhospitable heat, doing the physics of getting four people’s vacation stuff into the back of a Suburu, then came inside and ate a salad, politely said thank you and good bye, and allowed me to hug him, I realized, again, how unimaginably different my experience of motherhood is from hers. Or yours.
And yet, I was grateful. Milo kills me every day. And he teaches me too, about executive function. And about love.