There are so many wonderful words written by parents who have more than one child. Some lovingly lament the last of their babies shoving off for Kindergarten or college. Others offer hope for the relative ease of parenting that settles in when child number two or three or even four comes along. War stories of parental exhaustion are swapped around virtual campfires. Revelations about raising sons and daughters are bricks laid in these family foundations, and the intricate and intense relationships that form between those siblings are the mortar that holds it all together.
Yet, as the parent of one child, I can’t write some of those stories.
Sure, I can glean tiny bits from the perspective of being a sister and growing up with a brother myself, but as a parent I am not quite able to walk the full mile. I’m not sad or remorseful about that—those words are too strong—but I am sometimes curious about what differences I might’ve seen, both in myself and within my family as a whole, had we chosen to have more than one. Would patterns in nature versus nurture emerge more clearly? Would I second-guess myself less with each added child? Would I be faced with the question of “whom do you love more?” and, more to the point, would there be an answer I could truthfully utter aloud? Would she have been the amazing older sister I know she wants to be? Would I have found that my well of patience and resilience is actually much deeper than I think it is? I don’t play often here in this treacherous land of unknowable answers because it’s too easy to get lost in shadows of doubt and mystery, but sometimes I do.
Leaving the baby stage and the utter exhaustion during those early years, those I can relate to, but in a different way. For me, saying goodbye to the open mouthed kisses and baby cellulite happened only once, and the fatigue was shorter lived because I didn’t renew my contract with late night feedings and diaper changes. At the time, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the gravity of these things ending, but I certainly had a strong hunch I wouldn’t be going for another round. By the time she was three, we were pretty settled that she would be it. Even our momentary, three-month change of heart when she was almost five was half-baked and half-assed. We knew from very early on that we should pay attention to the milestones because we’d likely see them only once. There would be no reminiscing that started with “Your sister was … when she did that.” Those first several years, I was equal parts “thank goodness we are almost done with this” and “oh no, we are almost done with this!” It’s an odd, unsettling feeling when that is all tied to one child rather than more.
For us parents on this particular path, whether it be by choice or otherwise, I’m guessing some of it really is different, though certainly stitched with the common thread of sorrow that binds all of us parents together. Honestly, I’m not even sure if parents of multiple children can fully understand what it is like to have just one child because, on some level, it forces them to imagine their life without one or more of their children. That’s an impossible exercise. You get only a small taste of what it’s like between the time when your first is born and the second comes along, or perhaps when the last one is still in the house after the others have gone, but I imagine the flavor will never be as robust or nuanced as raising just one with intention.
I often wonder if parents of onlies and parents of multiple children ask themselves what I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, I wonder how could I possibly love anyone else as much as her…how could that possibly fit in my heart? And yet, I feel like parents of more than one might ask how could you stop at just one? because they actually live that intense love that (I’m guessing) doesn’t diminish despite more juice to pour or teeth to brush.
For me, the biggest discovery has been how I straddle the worlds of “firsts” and “lasts” so much of the time. My oldest is also my youngest. Her first day of Kindergarten was the first and last time I will ever have to do that. I won’t know if it gets easier with each child, or whether it grows harder knowing what’s on the horizon. It’s all easy and hard at the same time because I have no idea what to expect nor do I have to endure it again. I do not get that next child to “get it right” or “pay better attention.” This is it.
If we are going to see the twirl of her favorite flowered dress again, it might be on a friend or a niece, but certainly not another daughter (I have saved a few for a maybe granddaughter…you caught me). We will cycle through only one string of teachers in school, and there’s only one set of pencil marks on the wall recording how tall she is each year. She always gets the last cookie in the box, undivided and without elbowing a sibling on the way. In the same vein, we have to make sure she gets other opportunities to learn how to negotiate, respectfully disagree, and work through disappointment in ways that families with multiple children might take for granted with a home-based band of nations.
I don’t have to tend less to anyone for lack of arms or time or energy. There is enough of me to go around. The flip side, of course, is that once she’s too big for my lap, my legs will be cold again forevermore. That’s an inherent liability when you raise one child, but I choose to see it as a reward. There is an intense ability to savor and dwell in many of the moments because I am able to focus, stand upright, and face in only one direction.
Depending on the day, it can look like a sprint or a marathon, but it is certainly not a relay race. She is the only one on the track, and so I can wait patiently for her to cross the finish line in her own time. But this all reveals that being the parent of one child can be intense in a very singular and sometimes uncomfortable way for both her and me. I am sensitive to her life possibly unfolding under a magnifying glass, on center stage, or in a fishbowl.
There are simultaneously too many rules and not enough. There is no brother to blame for broken vases, and there is no sister who will break curfew first in order to soften our position when she does. If I want her to feel confident enough to take risks and make mistakes but without the burden of feeling like she has to please us all on her own, then sometimes I am (and will be) forced to avert my eyes, even though I don’t want to.
As with any first-born child, there are no worn cart paths to follow and guide my way. But the difference with one is that I will only travel down this road once. Any wisdom picked up along the way is nice to know, but not necessary for another time. This is why so much of parenting one child is now or never, and I feel that so deeply sometimes that I’m afraid to blink. I don’t want to miss all the brass rings. I know this wonderful carousel pony is eventually going to slow down and stop. And I know I only have one ticket to ride.
This post was inspired, in part, by some of the words I read here by Dina L. Relles. Do you know her writing? You should.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs this year. I think the significance of that is a separate post in its own right, and one that I intend to write about sometime soon. Suffice it to say, it comes down to two things (I think): my introversion and a present sense of loneliness when it comes to friendships.
Anyway, in one of those memoirs, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, by Penelope Lively, I was intrigued by the last chapter, “Six Things”, where Lively essentially describes the significance of six material things in her life. She prefaces the chapter with this:
My house has many things, too, besides those books—the accretions of a lifetime. Not many of them are valuable; some of them are eloquent. People’s possessions speak of them: they are resonant and betraying and reflective.
. . . I have picked out six of the things that articulate something of who I am. . . . [A]t this late point in life, I have seen these objects in the house imbued with new significance — I have seen how they reflect interests, and concerns, how they chart where I’ve been, and how I’ve been.
She goes on to describe the story of each item and dubs it a “material memoir” of sorts. I loved that notion, and ever since reading it months ago, it has been on my mind.
What would I choose as my six things?
Right away I imposed upon myself the rule that neither books nor photos (or devices that hold photos) would count. Those are a given, I think, for many of us. Maybe I’ll even do a separate entry about that one day; that is, which six books I couldn’t live without.
So, what’s left? This was harder than I thought it’d be, not because there were too many things, but because I was struck at how few I came up with. The process revealed that I do not have much in the way of material possessions that I feel deeply connected to on some level. Perhaps that is a good thing.
The process also revealed that there is much about the house that I don’t feel is truly mine. I don’t really have much in the way of material things that I carried forward from childhood or even my college/early adult years. Moreover, so much of the things in our home are shared, if not utilitarian. That was an interesting and unexpected realization.
Given the relative age difference between Lively and me—she’s 81 and I am 40—I wonder if that is part of it too. Perhaps I have not really begun that life phase of acquiring meaningful things. Maybe I never will. Or maybe the significance of things already in my midst have not had the full measure of time to reveal themselves yet.
But, eventually, some of my possessions did trickle forward, though perhaps with a sort of latent value that required me to really think about them first. I’m still thinking about the significance between items that I acquired myself versus those that were given to me, items that were objects found in nature versus those that were paid for with money. I think those differences speak volumes, and I will continue to ponder that a while longer. For now, though, here are my six things.
1. The diamond earrings from E. My husband, E, and I have been together for twenty years this summer (though married only since 2002). In 1997, after a few years of dating, he gave me a pair of diamond earrings for Christmas. They are humble and flawed (if you look closely), and were purchased with far more love than money. After all, he was still in graduate student budget mode at the time. Could we afford to upgrade this pair now? Yes. But the thing is, I don’t want to. Bigger, flawless diamonds are not who I am. I like to hold these earrings and know the backstory of how they came to be, and how they still, after all this time, matter just as much to me now. Notably, they are one of the few things I specifically bequeath to my daughter in my will.
2. Driftwood and rocks from Lake Champlain in Shelburne, VT. I’ve posted before about the significance of Shelburne, VT to my husband and me. When we go, I pick up these lovely pieces of driftwood that collect along the shore of Lake Champlain just steps from the cottage we rent at Shelburne Farms.
They have a distinct sound when you walk on them or toss one on the ground. I love their weathered grey color, smoothness, and sometimes erratic shapes. I carefully nestle a few each year in my suitcase, and they’ve taken up residence around the living room. And the rocks. Oh, the rocks. These smooth stones of black shale, veined with quartz are, in a word, mesmerizing. I could (and often do) spend hours poking through them along the shore. Inevitably, I pick a few to take home. These stones and sticks, I see them every day and am reminded of that special place, a place that I hope one day will be a more permanent fixture in my life.
3. Shells collected at various beaches. In my living room sits a jar of shells that we’ve collected as a family (and even a few since before M was born almost seven years ago). They hail from beaches domestic and afar. Other than the Atlantic Surf Clams, I probably cannot even tell you what beaches we were on when we found those treasures. But no matter. It’s what they represent and remind me of: long stretches of time together to walk—uninterrupted and unhurried—along the shore, just to take in the salty breezes and hear the cries from the gulls overhead. Those walks where the water lapped at our feet, us wondering whether the next wave would deliver a new treasure just for us to see. Each shell is plucked as being so very important, and it is, at least in that moment. That importance fades over time, it seems. Collectively, though, seeing these shells accumulate from year to year (and particularly in the middle of winter), I am reminded that summer will always come again, as will vacations and time to let our guard down together.
4. My camera. I really don’t know where I would be without my camera. I’ve had many over the years, and each one has been so supremely significant to me while in my possession. I’ve long since given away my first 35mm (film!) camera, and the few digital SLRs I owned after that, but I will always remember each one as special. The camera I have now is no different, other than the fact that it was also the one thing I allowed myself to buy right before leaving my job at the law firm three years ago. By leaving that job, I was walking away from a more viable income source than what I’ve cobbled together for myself by writing and working as a VERY part-time attorney. It was my last significant purchase with money I earned completely on my own. For any woman who has ratcheted down her career in the name of her children, you know exactly what I might be feeling when I note that. It’s not bothersome to me, but it’s a significance that is tied to this particular camera, and it’s not lost on me.
5. My bunny coffee mug. This little guy only came into my possession a few years ago, but for some reason I am profoundly attached to it. I bought it at a craft fair and it was made by a local potter. Strange that it took so many years to find the “right” mug–the handle, the weight, the size . . . all of it. Just perfect. I think what also gives it significance is that on some level it solidifies that I am a bona fide adult, one who needs coffee on a daily basis just to keep up with life, and there’s no turning my back on that fact anymore. Nothing else makes me feel quite like an adult as does my mug.
6. The necklace that hangs around my neck. I bought it out of a catalog some years ago, so it’s not something profoundly unique. On one side has a tree (affirming my affinity for trees), and the other side simply says this:
By now I’ve almost developed a sort of superstitious relationship with it. I am afraid to take it off for fear of something bad happening. Perhaps this is a talisman of my anxiety if nothing else. I do, on occasion, take it off in order to wear something fancy if the event (or my mood) requires, but it’s rare. I feel naked without it.
Remember what is important to you. Words that I need to literally wear around my neck in order to remember it, every single day.
What’s important to you? What are your “six things”?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Even though it was nine years ago, I remember that giddy anticipation when we purchased our house. Our first house. This house.
Were we taking too much of a financial risk? I was barely a year into my job as a law firm associate. The very month during which we closed was also the apex of the bloated housing bubble. Needless to say, we leaped without much of a parachute, much less any alternate flight plans.
Would we spend all of our free time cleaning and tweaking this house? Our 800 SF apartment had been quite enough to maintain, it seemed.
Was this too big for just the two of us? We had no plans for animals or children.
But perhaps most pressing at the time, where will we sit?
We quickly realized we needed to fill these rooms if we wanted to use them. Wasn’t that the point, in fact, of buying a home?
Given the inflated cost of the house, our budget for furnishings was meager. We decided to start with the living room. We only had one piece to bring from the apartment: an oversized, overstuffed chair and ottoman. A faded sage twill, it was incredibly comfortable, at least to our twenty and thirtysomething year old bodies. It was practical too: the ottoman doubled as seating during parties. No matter that it took up a third of our new living room.
Yes, we would have to design and coordinate any new living room furniture around this chair.
We filled the room, somewhat in haste and all without really projecting into the future. No, we didn’t exactly account for our actual daily endeavors and pastimes in mind, or how our bodies might age (hint: much faster than we anticipated). We bought a honking large armoire to tuck away the tube television. A coffee table and an end table with the world’s sharpest corners rounded out the rest of the room. People could sit now too. The couch we ended up with was striped in green and blue, and a more scaled down version of the stuffy, puffy chair. Eventually we added a cheap book shelf to the room and a little bit of tabletop lighting.
It was all ours. These pieces quickly became fixtures within the central corridor of our home. People could sit and gather, think and talk, flop and snooze.
And tomorrow, we say goodbye to all of it in order to make way for new things.* Pieces that won’t break our backs anymore. Pieces that are more thought out with what we like to do in this room. Pieces that take into account the wide range of ages that frequent our home.
Up until a few days ago, I was happy about the whole thing. I mean, of course I still am. Our new space will have some additions I have coveted for many years (read: far more bookshelf space) and will lend itself to a more streamlined flow. We also have an opportunity to make others happy in the process. Yes. Good things.
And yet I am suddenly sentimental about one piece that is moving on: our sofa.
While watching my daughter lounge across the blue and green stripes earlier this week, I was unexpectedly face to face with an attachment I didn’t know I had to this workaday piece of furniture.
All in a moment, I remembered all that has happened on those 82 inches of upholstery and fill.
The endless hours of nursing her in that first (draining) year, her soft wisps of hair fluttering against my naked skin.
The (seemingly) endless hours of tending to her through the stomach bug/roseola/colds/strep/swine flu/fevers.
The infinite games of Uno and Go Fish.
Emma and Paul getting priority seating.
The countless cereal bars and yogurt smoothies consumed there by her for breakfast. Every. Day.
The slowly growing length of her legs that used to take up just one cushion, then two, and now three.
The naps where she fell asleep on top of me and I just breathed in the scent of her hair until she awoke.
The books read.
The birthday and Christmas presents opened.
The sillies and the tickles.
The tears and the laughter.
I guess it’s not surprising that I am feeling sentimental about the sofa, though I wasn’t really expecting this reaction. It’s caused a few tears for sure. I thought maybe giving away her bed or our dining room table would someday move me like this, but not the sofa that I can no longer sit in for more than an hour without suffering the painful consequence. Yet, when I really think about it, there is a physical closeness that takes place on the sofa that is very much unlike what happens around a table or even a child’s bed. Snuggles ensue. Hugs happen. Heads rest upon shoulders. Toes touch knees. Intimate moments become indelible imprints. It is, it seems, the natural order of things when two or more people are sitting in such comfortable and close proximity.
But it’s time to let it go. It is.
And, just maybe, it will become sentimental to someone else too.
* I’m happy to pay all of it forward. The chair went (for free) to a woman who was looking to finish furnishing her own living room on the cheap. I was a little irritated because she never came back for the ottoman as promised, but I ultimately found another sweet, older woman who was looking to decorate her much-saved for and recently purchaed beach house where she will visit with her ten grandchildren each summer. She will reupholster the ottoman and use it as a coffee table. And the rest? It will be going to help formerly homeless individuals who are taking those first steps of having their own place to call home, and just need a little help filling the space. For those of you living in the greater Boston area and whom might have gently used furniture to donate, I encourage you to reach out to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. There are many—too many—families who could use what you no longer need. Other than the chair and ottoman (which I gave away via Freecycle), this is where all of our living room furniture is going to live its second life, and hopefully a wonderful one at that.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I think what’s great about my daughter’s age right now, six and a half years old, is that her more nuanced personality traits and tendencies are starting to really blossom. She’s always been particularly empathic and feels deeply, if you will. But, I recently found out, she also seems to be a bit of a sentimentalist too. Am I a sentimentalist at heart? I wonder.
I’ve mentioned before that Vermont holds a special place in the hearts of both my husband and me. It almost feels like a secret, magical world up there, one that not too many people seem to know about. I think that’s why we love it so.
We’ve been going almost annually for many years now. We used to stay in Woodstock or Middlebury, but for the past few years we’ve been staying in Shelburne. We’ve taken our daughter up with us only once (she was about two) when we rented a house in Woodstock. We invited her grandparents up for that trip too. But since that time, we’ve been going to Shelburne (without our daughter or anyone else) for the past several Columbus Day weekends. It has become a tradition that seems to have solidified. It is our getaway of sorts and I look forward to it starting around November.
In 1998, we got engaged in Vermont. While we were up there during that long weekend, we took a day trip to Burlington. I bought this key chain at Danforth Pewter.
Last summer, after 15 years of nonstop use, the ring that attaches to the key ring broke. Unless it was re-soldered, it was useless. I was pretty bummed about it all, but just tucked it away in a drawer, unwilling to throw it away knowing that I bought it when we got engaged. Even though I’m not particularly sentimental about objects, I could not seem to part with this.
Before we left for our 2013 trip to Shelburne, I remembered the broken key chain and decided to bring it with me to see what Danforth Pewter might be able to do. When I got to the store, the clerk asked, “Well, we can either give you a brand new key chain or we can repair this one, if there is sentimental value to it.” The implication was, I think, that it wasn’t really worth the trouble and/or cost to fix this key chain given its original cost.
I chose to repair it. The thing is, I like all of its worn smoothness. I’m fond of the tiny nicks and notches it has acquired from banging against my keys for fifteen years. I like the worry stone properties it seems to have, allowing me to rub my thumb against the glass when I am nervous about something. This is the one I want. I am not willing to part with it.
About a month ago, I attempted to clean the kitchen sink window. I have a sun catcher on this window. Or at least I did. It was a stamped glass flower in a lovely shade of yellow that matches our kitchen walls. I bought it, not surprisingly, while in Burlington a few years ago, the same year that we remodeled our kitchen and chose the yellow paint color. I’m not a big souvenir person, but I did like this and thought it would look lovely over our sink, where I could remember our times in Vermont while washing dishes.
I wasn’t careful about the way I tried to take it off the suction cup before cleaning the window. In one swift motion it went from window down into the drain and broke in two. “Oh no!” I said out loud.
M came running in. “What happened, Mommy?” I showed her the broken pieces in my hand and we looked at them together.
I sighed. “I’m really sad. I liked that sun catcher. I bought it with Daddy up in Vermont. Oh well,” I said with a big sigh as I opened the trash drawer to throw the shards away. I wanted to get back to cleaning the window.
As I tossed them into the trash, M started getting upset. “No, Mommy! Don’t throw those away! It’s special to you!”
“But, M, they’re broken. I can’t fix this because it’s glass.” I looked at her to see if she understood. The concept of which things can and cannot be fixed is still gelling at this age.
“No! You can still keep them and remember it,” she said. She was visibly distraught and tears formed in her eyes. She went on to beg me to keep it.
I, on the other hand, while somewhat sad (though more angry at myself for my haste), knew that I could probably buy another one the next time we were up there. I didn’t understand why she was so sad.
But given her insistence that I keep it, I thought maybe she was on to something. Maybe she was more in tune with the sentimentality of this object than even I was. Is that possible? Perhaps.
And so . . .
Two pieces of glass sit upstairs in a drawer, not catching much sun anymore.
It’s all got me to thinking about my own level of sentimentality, especially given that I recently turned forty. Am I more jaded and care less because of it? Or do I care more because of my growing sense of mortality and the brevity of life? With the exception of photos and words set to paper, either by people I know and love (letters, cards) or by strangers (books), I am not overly sentimental these days when it comes to most other “things”. I don’t hang on to much that is not in active use.
I think about the material things that I cannot part with, but more so the why. I realize that I am perhaps not as sentimental as I once was, and I now wonder, based on this sun catcher incident, if I too often let my pragmatic side get in the way. I do not like clutter or wasting precious space in our humble little house. It’s why I have absolutely no problem donating away her baby toys and most of her books. Yet I do keep the books that have special meaning to us, and I cannot let go of some of the very early outfits she wore and loved.
It’s the sense of closeness to her, my husband, and a few other people that determines where on the sentimentality spectrum something might fall. But even more specifically, the closeness of a particular time or event with these loved ones. These kept objects and mementos have the very real effect of bringing me back to those specific days and the emotions I felt at the time. Yet, when balanced with my sometimes overly loud practical side, I think that’s why I didn’t think to throw away the key chain, but found it kind of silly to keep broken glass. Sentimentality and practicality are sometimes hard to reconcile.
Though, in the end, I did keep the sun catcher anyway because I wondered if she was wiser about something that I could not see for myself at the time. Given how unexpectedly happy I was to find it in a drawer this past Sunday, I know she was.
What’s sentimental to you? Is there anything you regret not holding onto? Are your children sentimental too?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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