By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
The year she was born, winter was slow to leave. Never mind the calendar’s assertion, that spring had arrived two days prior; thick, wet snow heaped across our front yard, a spontaneous demonstration that weather forecasters don’t know everything. My preschoolers pressed their noses against the wavy windowglass in the dining room, keen to dive into the drifts.
“Not today,” I told them. “Maybe Daddy will build a snowman with you when he gets home from work.”
But he didn’t. Instead, he drove me to the hospital where our youngest daughter was born in a hurry, sounding out a full-throated cry before her feet felt the air. Her birth was nothing like those of her older siblings,
“Already?” I remember thinking, and then (probably because the nine months of pregnancy plus parenting had left me little time to contemplate much more than laundry and meal preparation), “I wonder what it will be like to have three children in the house.”
I was weary and exhilarated and clueless: I had no idea this random thought summed up one of the strangest and most delightful facets of being a parent, which is surprise. Nobody publishes books about how to be astonished by one’s offspring. Instead, authors labor over manuals that detail what to expect, how to succeed, ways to survive and thrive. While I am grateful for the hand-me-down wisdom offered in print and online, much of it has turned out to be irrelevant, even harmful. I never have become reconciled to the notion of raising my children systematically.
The reason is, each of them arrived with a unique set of unknowns.
This one, the March baby, revealed intensity from the start.
“It’s like she is 100 percent Coleman, 100 percent Mason, 100 percent Seth and 100 percent Schultz,” I exclaimed to my husband. He pointed out the impossibility of a 400 percent total.
“Exactly,” I said. Yet there she was.
At age one, she schooled herself with two-syllable lectures on the dangers of electric sockets. At two, she hurled herself into a bright-red toddler bed, too acrobatic to stay in a crib. At three, she consumed most of one layer of her chocolate birthday cake before I realized something was amiss in the kitchen; she went on the next day to savor a three-layer slice of the same, along with chocolate ice cream. At four, she persuaded her older sister to teach her to read and play the piano. Behind my back. With undeniable relish. You get the idea.
But this is not meant to be a laundry list of accomplishments. This is a recollection of wonder. By the time she arrived, I had carried three children, navigated an A to Z array of challenges and triumphs, and gotten my bearings over more than a decade of motherhood. How complicated could it be to add another child to the family?
We could counter with another set of questions. Who knew I’d have a daughter who outspoke me in bluntness? Could I have anticipated an 8-year-old who insisted on playing cello “because it has low deep tones, and you can do vibrato”? Where on earth did she get that propensity for languages, when her mother and father are monolingual?
And besides that, how come all my secret mom plans and clever parent tricks don’t work on this one?
Parents tend to assume so much. If the first child liked the rocking chair, it’s reasonable, I suppose, to rock the second. When your firstborn is a light sleeper, you naturally whisper around the next baby. And so it goes. This is normal, but not necessarily good. Love, we must remember, is all about seeing people, really paying attention to who they are, what they long for, how they operate. We’ve all experienced the moment of awkward disappointment when someone for whom we feel real affection offers a gift or remark that is so off-target, so hideously inappropriate, that we feel panic and pain.
“I thought this person knew me,” we think. “I thought he saw me for who I am.”
That expectation is connected to the vulnerable child who resides deep within each of us. We want to be known. Our children want to be known. Not managed. Or moulded.
In two-child families, like the one in which I was raised, it might be simpler to affirm individuality. The more children that come along, the easier it is to coast on experience or simply paddle without pondering. My husband, who was ninth in a sibling group of 13, shares memories that alternately fascinate and puzzle me. I enjoyed luxuries of parental time and attention that are impossible when the parent-child ratio is 2:13, rather than 2:2. This is not to suggest large families are a mistake.
I would posit, however, that more offspring require parents to exercise more attentiveness. My assumption that I was a fairly experienced mother often worked against me as I got to know my youngest child. She wasn’t the last installment in a set. She was herself — all 400 percent of her.
It has been 14 years since I became the mother of Amira Joy Coleman. Though I had been a mother for some time, being HER mother was an entirely new position, replete with dilemmas and delights previously unknown to me. It’s still that way.
If weather forecasts are correct, an early spring snowstorm will bury the daffodil and hyacinth blossoms near my front steps, just as it did more than a decade ago. The weather surprised me then, and it surprised me a second time when I returned to my home two days later with a bright new daughter. We stepped into a pristine midday world, snow shining in the sun and scarlet tulips poking through the snow. The blossoms had unfurled, all at once, on their own timetable.
I expect to see that sort of unexpected miracle time and again. I learned it from Amira.