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
My beloved maple still has a full verdant crown. Only a smattering of leaves have been tinged with a kiss of deep burgundy. Jewels in the crown. Those will fall early, it seems. Did the arborist tell me it was a Norway maple? I think so, but I can’t remember. It doesn’t really matter. I love this tree, deep into the heartwood. It’s a constant that I gaze upon often. Though I worry about the wet autumn winds when she is still heavy with leaves. Will she weather the storm another year? Is it better to have the three trunks instead of one? It seems as though she is stable, but I’m never entirely sure.
She turned seven this month. Her hair is barely blond anymore. Is that because she’s going to be a brunette or we didn’t spend enough time outside this summer? I need to be better about that next year. I can’t even remember most of August and here she is starting first grade. New teacher, new classmates, new expectations. Even our morning routine feels a little different, though I can’t place how just yet. She still likes to snuggle on the couch for the last ten minutes before we leave. I know the transitions are hard for her, but nothing like they used to be. I’m happy for this change, though more for her than for me.
The colors don’t seem as vibrant as last year. Or maybe they are the same. I really don’t remember. I always think I will recall year to year, but then I never do. Black spot has peppered the changing leaves this year, but it’s only noticeable on the few that have reached the ground. The crown is now dull and muted, like an army boot that has trudged through miles of terrain. She’s getting ready to let her leaves go. But not without a show first. She waits until the very end of the month to glide into a spectrum of golds. Did it happen overnight? It seems that way. I try to catch a few of the big ones to press between a heavy book so I can remember their vivid yellow, but my effort is futile. I leave empty handed, with only a memory lightly etched into my mind’s eye. Or so I tell myself.
I know what it is now: she doesn’t want me to read to her before school anymore. She’d rather look out the window or play in the last few minutes before I say, “it’s time to go” and hunt down shoes and keys. When she was three and four and five, clinging to me and crying, this is what I longed for, right? Then why do I feel like an awkward interloper? I’m no longer a necessary participant. When did that happen? She’s only seven. Yet she still wants to hold my hand on the walk to school. I clutch her small fingers as though they were gold coins. I don’t want to let go of my riches while I still have them. I’m holding on tight.
It only took two weeks. The branches danced vigorously some of those nights, dropping confetti on the lawn. When I look out my window in the morning, I see the party is almost over. Points of gold and brown flutter and glow in the low angled light, stuck between blades of grass. Are they waving goodbye? Only a few leaves remain on the tree. Maybe they are stubborn and don’t want to let go. I wonder what holds on tighter—the stem or the branch? If it’s the tree, I would understand completely. But, eventually, the leaves will drop. They always do. There are never any leaves left come December. Some drift into the yards of neighbors or clog the storm drains along our sandy streets. The rest get raked into a pile, only to end up in the city’s hands or in our compost bin. The cycle of life. I try to keep as much of them in my yard as I can. They will feed the soil and fuel the flowers come spring. They are mine and I don’t want to let go.
We sail through the mornings. No more “hurry up” or “did you remember?” is needed from me. Afternoons are spent in mutual space but individual thoughts, especially when I let her take the lead. That’s been true for a while now. I just wait idle in the living room while she goes about her routine. Though I want to feel needed and find myself offering a gentle reminder before she even needs one. I get heavy sighs and “I know” in return. She’s making it clear that she’s letting go in this small way that doesn’t feel at all small to me. She’s asking questions about things that I know she’s picking up from friends as she flutters with them through recess and snack time. Things that seem like they are on the other side of the cusp where she stands. They are “what’s next” and I’m not entirely ready. I take pictures of her, much like the way I’d press those leaves I never seem to catch. I’m afraid I’ll forget, that my memory won’t be strong enough to withstand the windy days and barer branches ahead. She is mine and I don’t want to let go.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Relevance has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ll tell you why, in a minute, but what I find myself mulling over is this:
How does our desire to be seen and heard tie into relevance?
Is relevance one way we value ourselves and determine our self-worth?
Is there an inherent impermanence to the kind of relevance we need and seek?
How does the barometer measuring our relevance rise and fall when we talk about love, friendship, and living on this lovely blue ball?
Do we need to feel relevant? And if so, to whom, exactly, and why?
I was headed into Boston. I was on my way to my first mammogram. The reflection of full swaths of grey hair staring me down each morning usually does it, but I was feeling particularly forty that morning.
I dislike driving in heavy traffic so I took the T. As I waited on the subway platform, I noticed the slant of light that early October morning. It filtered through the almost leafless sumacs across the tracks onto the concrete platform and yellow warning strip. It reflected in irregular glints along the third rail, a subtle spotlight on the danger that lurked six feet below. I thought the light was lovely, calming even, as I waited with the commuter crowd on my way to an appointment which would render me half naked in less than an hour. I dug my iPhone out of my pocket and shared the scene on Instagram. At forty years old, I felt progressive, if not relevant, in this technophile society.
Even though I really don’t like driving, I prefer taking crowded public transportation only a hair more. I’m claustrophobic in a dentist’s chair or in a windowless room, so bodies pressed upon bodies in a hurtling tube of metal is not exactly relaxing for me. So the other thing I do to talk myself down from my anxious tree is watch people.
The pistons inside my brain started firing immediately when I saw him. He was hipster cool with his glasses and standard issue beard. The black denim jacket added an extra layer of New England badass. He was easily fifteen years my junior. But it was his Anthrax baseball hat and the way he sailed right by me like I was invisible that ultimately pierced the thin skin of my “I don’t need to impress anyone anymore” attitude.
The thing is, I was invisible in that moment, standing there in my grey cardigan and practical black pants. A nameless face in the crowd, just like everyone else. I wasn’t relevant, at least not to him.
I wanted to walk down the platform and tap him on the shoulder and tell him that when I was in middle school—and he didn’t even yet exist—that I had the biggest crush on Scott Ian. That I had two Anthrax posters on my bedroom wall. That I knew all the lyrics to “I Am The Law” and was keen on what efilnikufesin meant. That I would go home later to look up a few of the videos for old time’s sake. That I used to be relevant, man, at least when it came to heavy metal music. That this bland vision of a downtrodden wife and mother on her way to a nondescript hospital exam room, hoping to return in time for after school pickup is not who I really am.
Or is it? Is this who I am now?
Am I still relevant?
I think we all want to leave our mark somehow. We want to know that we mattered, and that people noticed. We want to feel relevant in this world. For me, as I get older, I see that the people that I need to feel relevant to has shifted and the circle has gotten smaller. Though as my brief encounter with Mr. Anthrax shows, not always. That self-conscious girl from high school still lurks in the shadows of my mind and memories. When these blips happen, I wonder why.
Perhaps my looser grip on relevance in and to the wider world now has more to do with my growing sense of mortality rather than a base need to feel admired or respected by others like I used to. Maybe I’ve realized that the currency has changed. At some point, it had to. Instead of my tastes in music or fashion trends, I want to know that my love and presence matter more to others and will be what leaves a lasting impression. Yes, I think I’m coming to see that this is what makes a nisefukinlife.
How does your relevance to others play into your life, if at all? Has its importance diminished over time in certain circles?
In case you missed it, I was at Literary Mama earlier this week. Come see!
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
She caught my eye immediately. With chunky, dimpled thighs that shook when she walked, she held her father’s hand and tried to keep up as they looked for an empty chair near the pool. She couldn’t have been older than three years old. Her hot pink ruffled bathing suit fluttered with each step as she cautiously eyed the water, now bustling with many noisy children enjoying a post-dinner, pre-bedtime swim. She stayed very close to her father. She was wary, and maybe a bit worried too. But her older sister, maybe eleven or twelve, was already jumping into the pool. She clearly did not need her father anymore. My gaze went back to the little one. I was reminded of how M was that age when we started visiting this special place every year. I was jolted by the knowledge of how far we’ve come since then.
That was the scene in the clubhouse pool where we were on vacation two weeks ago. My husband, M, and I were already swimming when I took this all in. My mind drifted, as it has a tendency to do when in a room full of people I do not know. It dawned on me that, when in a place with other families with children of various ages, my eye always drifts towards the children who are younger than my own daughter (who’s just two months shy of seven). I almost never seem to watch the children who are immersed in the tween and teenage years.
Why is that?, I wondered.
It’s not baby lust. No, I settled that account long ago.
I’ve pondered this over the past few nights. I think it’s because it gives me some perspective, if not relief, to see how far we’ve come from those truly challenging first years. There’s no doubt that there’s now less of a physical toll taken each day, what with all the lifting and carrying that must be done at the start. The unexpected, unpredictable pendulum swings of emotion have largely evened out, for both her and me. I can see that we’ve survived so much, and intact at that. If raising a child were like being in Girl Scouts, I feel like I would have earned the lion’s share of patches by now. There really aren’t too many patches left, though they are arguably going to be the most difficult to endure and acquire.
But it’s more than these things. By looking at our past through the lens of other younger children, I feel like I can appreciate the now of where we are this very moment. I appreciate that she still sidles up next to me for a snuggle or a book, though her body much leaner, more limber now. I appreciate that she still wants to hold my hand but doesn’t have to run to keep up. I appreciate that she sometimes needs help sorting through the tangled knots of understanding friendships or fractions but has enough confidence in herself to figure it out alone much of the time now. I appreciate that her silly, pumpkin smile flashes often and without abandon.
Above all, I feel like I appreciate the relative slowness of time passing right this very moment. It’s much like the hazy, humid days of summer, when you’ve got your feet in the kiddie pool and a lemonade in your hand. You don’t have to move. Everything you need is right in front of you, and the day takes forever to pass. That’s what this age feels like to me. It’s calm and balmy. The air is sticky and sweet. It’s not stormy and unpredictable like the toddler and teenage years.
I think that’s why I am almost fearful of looking at the children older than my daughter. I don’t want to see the blank stares and shoulder shrugs they give their parents. I don’t want to see the almost total lack of physical contact or desire for affection on the part of those children. I don’t want to see the failed attempts at understanding one another. I don’t want to see tempo of time tick faster as it seems to do after children reach a certain age.
Is this turning a blind eye my denial that these years are coming? Perhaps a little bit. But more than that I think it’s an overwhelming appreciation for right now. How good it is right this very moment with a child who can do so much independently and yet who still needs . . . no, wants . . . my guidance, wisdom, and insight. How good it is with a child who is comfortable in her own skin, whether she’s by my side or not.
I’m standing in a very magical place right now, and I know it. A lovely, long plateau—I think, I hope—if you will. There is a sweetness and innocence in the air around me. The light is beautiful from where I stand. I can see clearly in all directions, both from where I’ve come and where I’m likely to go. But for me, I realize that the view at my feet and of the footsteps behind me allow for so much gratitude, perhaps more than the uncharted trails ahead.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
We live along an elevated edge of an abandoned granite quarry. Though it is pretty densely populated around here, the adjacent topography—the contours of the land that surrounds us—gives way to a wide expanse of sky. We are lucky in this way.
Our backyard and deck face the west, and the kitchen window above the sink looks out this way too. This means that, at the end of the day, perhaps when we need it most, we are privy to some of the most glorious of sundown skies. From our vantage point, though we cannot see the sun go down below the horizon, there is a lovely progression of dimming light that we do get to witness.
This is the cardinal direction that I favor most, the time of day when I feel most connected to the earth.
And yet, there are times, though not often, when I am roused enough by the morning sun and all of its offerings at the front of our house. The early light seems more like a promise, rather than the affirmation that the dusk provides. I’m not sure about you, but I have more faith in affirmations of what was, rather than in promises of what might be. But that scent of hope that a promise provides? It’s quite attractive sometimes.
The other morning was one such morning. It was a cotton candy sky—both the blue and the pink I suppose, though I am a traditionalist when it comes to spun sugar. I prefer mine pink. I lifted the shade and stood at her tiny dormer window for just a moment, stealing this view all for myself.
M was still waking up in her bed, but I knew if she didn’t hurry, she’d miss the morning light that was filled with her favorite color. I told her to come look. She’s never disappointed when I do that, though usually it is in the evenings and not when she wants to stay warm under the covers. She crawled onto her window seat and uttered her usual, whispered refrain, “Wow. It’s so beautiful.” Indeed it was. Somehow we were both able to see past the intrusive utility lines and the ugliness of the neighbor’s rotten shed. We were consumed by the rosy glow.
Ever since she’s voiced her affinity for pink, I’ve come to notice it more myself, especially in the sky. I now deliberately point it out to her, and she to me, so that neither of us misses a particularly spectacular show. Almost anything we’re doing can be momentarily stopped to revel in the bounty of light offered by the sun and sky. Before her, I probably would not have stopped so deliberately, and certainly not as often, to take note of the colors.
Now, the sundown sky often reveals the smallness of our time here. Since M entered my world, she has become the yardstick by which I measure this time. It’s not my parents’ lives. It’s not even my husband’s. No, the one thing that has made me take note of it is her. Before her, there were discrete goals that helped me measure time: attending and completing school, finding and advancing through a job, getting married, buying a house. These were but things on a list that needed to be checked off, and there was plenty of time to do it.
Once all of those things were accomplished, the rest of the time ahead of me felt more open-ended. I was slightly uneasy and irresponsible with it. I was wasteful. Then M was eventually born, and time instantly felt more finite. I felt a certain kind of deliberate call to action about how I was going to make use of what time was left. It all leaves me feeling a bit frantic.
I think we all have something that becomes our touchstone for measuring time, especially what we have left. For me, I’m now realizing, it’s my daughter and watching her grow. No matter how many more years I’ve got, I know it will not be enough. I think we’re all slightly greedy in this way, or at least I am. But, by ticking the time away night after night with sunsets that give us pause, or those sunrises that nudge us out of bed a few minutes early, I try to slow it all down just a bit. I’m pretty sure it’s not working, but at least we are enjoying the show together. And, I hope she will learn, earlier than I did, to give pause for all of those skies she will one day see without me by her side.
Much of my Instagram feed (where these images also have appeared) is filled with my sky-obsessed photos. If you like that kind of thing, come find me over there: @littlelodestar.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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