I think that first day was a nightmare for us all.
Looking back, I can see that I was actually quite confident in my non-existent parenting skills. I mean, how hard is it to keep tiny humans fed and watered? Sure, I can’t seem to remember to water my plants, but my dog is still thriving three years later.
But then the youngest threw up all over me. And that’s actually when it went all downhill from there.
I knew enough to call a friend and ask advice. She told me to check for a fever and if she had one I needed to give my new child Tylenol. I remember thinking, How do I check a fever on a 2 year old? Do adult thermometers work on kids? Where do I put it? I don’t stick it up her bum do I? And isn’t Tylenol bad for kids? How are they supposed to swallow those pills? Do I chop them up and put them in milk? Can kids even drink milk?!?!?!
It may have only been twenty-four hours since we became parents, but that was a changing part in parenting for me. In all those books I read (and it wasn’t very many, mind you) no one ever mentioned that there is actually medicine made for children. And toddlers can put thermometers under their arms, not in their bums. And yes, kids can actually drink milk. Who would’ve thought?
Someone please tell me that maternal instinct isn’t just relegated to moms of biological kids. That it’s not the stuff that umbilical cords are made of. That genetics don’t have anything to do about it. Or, at the very least, please tell me that this instinct is something I can read about in a book. Or, can I Google it?
It’s been over a year and I still find myself completely at a loss. My oldest is now in kindergarten and I find myself unsure of what size backpack kids are supposed to carry ,or what to put in her lunch kit. And I can never order the right size T-shirt.
Then again, there are definitely things I know about my children more than other people know. I know their favorite foods (broccoli for one, pizza for the other), and their favorite animal (a cat for the oldest, a snail for the little), and that my oldest prefers running outside while the youngest would rather keep her nails perfectly painted. These are those normal things that a mom is supposed to know. Things that have taken months for me to diligently remember. Things that anyone could figure out after spending half a day with them.
And then there’s those other things. The things that no one sees but me. The things that make me think that maternal instinct isn’t genetically predisposed.
Like, when we meet new people and she doesn’t talk at first, you might joke about how kids are so shy and how your kids are the same. But I know by the way she’s tucking her hair behind her ears over and over that it’s more than her being shy. You scare her. It’s the way you talk. Or what you’re wearing. Or how you patted her head. It subconsciously reminds her of a not so pleasant time and now she doesn’t trust you or the situation she’s in. And it’s me (it’s me!) that she’s looking for to tell her everything will be okay.
Or when she spills her water on her shirt, even if it’s just a drop, she starts crying so loud and starts freaking out that her clothes are wet and dirty. You probably think she’s throwing a huge temper tantrum and I should definitely not give in. But I do. I tell her she’s not wet and dirty, that she’s clean and beautiful and amazing and perfect and that it’s okay there is a little water on her shirt, but if she wants to go change it she can. And I don’t grumble—I try not to grumble—about all the extra laundry, because I know that she extra sensitive to the feel of wet clothes
It’s timeswhen I yell at her for taking too long to buckle herself in the car seat on our way to the grocery store that I start to wonder if I’ll ever have a maternal instinct when it comes to what she needs and what she doesn’t. Every day I doubt myself. I’m not so sure that what I know is enough. I’m not sure I know enough of the big stuff, the important stuff, the stuff that makes up her very being. When I start to think about the future of our relationship, I get scared that I’m not doing enough now to cultivate it so that it will flourish as time goes on. I get scared that my black thumb surfaces more than my green one does.
When she gets to middle school, will she tell me about the fight she has with her best friend? Will she ask me how to fix it?
When she gets her period, will I be her first confidante into her foray into womanhood? Will I celebrate with her? Or will we cry into our ice cream when she learns that yes, she will have to deal with Mother Nature every month?
When she has her first crush, will she tell me who it is? Will we lay in bed and gossip about how cute he is? Will I regale her with tales about how hard her daddy had to work to capture my own heart?
And when her heart is crushed by a high school sweetheart, will she sob into the corners of her pillow by herself in the loneliness of night? Or will she find comfort in my arms and sneak into my bed with me and allow me to cry with her?
These are the things that keep me up at night, keeping me from resting peacefully knowing that I did a good job, that I did in fact love them enough today. I lay on my back, my hands clasped on my belly, staring straight up at the swirling fan, my husband snoring peacefully beside me, and my mind whirs and whirs for hours. I replay simple situations over in my head and think, Did I do that one right? I think about the time when she asked for chips for snack and I told her she had to have fruit. Yeah, I definitely score a point in the health and nutrition department. In the moment I’m patting myself on the back for standing firm with that parenting decision. But at night I see everything in a different light, and I think to myself, Should I have let her have the chips? What would it have hurt anyway? Was that a potential bonding moment that I casually dismissed?
I’m wondering if motherhood really should be this complicated.
Caitlin is the founder and creator of Respite Redefined. She is a wife and mother of two daughters through adoption from foster care. Caitlin loves to read, to write, and to dream of the places she'll go and the sights she'll see and the new kids she'll one day meet.