Sunday, June 03, 2007

New Normal

We went to a barbecue last night. While the grown-ups ate steak with mesclun greens and drank from plastic cups of sparkling white wine, a herd of children roamed around eating hot dogs, playing on swings, and picking up great clumps of mown grass to throw at one another shouting, "It’s a Fiffer-feffer feff!" (Okay, that last one was just Bub.) It was a pleasant evening, cooling off from a hot, humid day, and the only drawback to the setting was the lack of fencing. Our hosts live in an old stone farmhouse set on a rural highway. The patio is well back from the road, so it was easy to ignore the occasional transport truck whizzing past. There was little to tempt the children in the direction of the highway – all the flowers and swing-sets and chip-bowls were located towards the back of the property. Nevertheless, I kept half an eye on each child as we ate and chatted. At any given time, I always knew exactly where my children were, monitoring the periphery of the yard while I conversed with the other grown-ups.

This divided attention is second nature to me now – it barely cost me an effort to maintain that level of alertness. Indeed, I find social situations more relaxing when the rigours of child-supervision limit the need for small-talk. This barbecue was hosted by the law office where hubby has been working since January, and the swarms of children shrieking and laughing, the need for parents to jump up every five minutes to prevent eyes from being poked out, made for a casual, comfortable atmosphere.

A man can get used to anything, they say, even being hanged. (At least, that’s what they say in L. M. Montgomery’s books, though I have no idea where the expression originated.) Likewise, a woman can get used to anything, even that state of perpetual alertness that accompanies motherhood. One of the biggest adjustments for me after Bub was born was the need to keep one ear cocked at all times, listening for signs of wakefulness. There were breaks when the baby slept, but they were never real breaks – they were states of stand-by, when I was always on-call, and the crushing part was the realization that I would never be off-duty again.

Every once in awhile I am wafted with a momentary memory of what it was like to have the weekend stretching out ahead of me as an uninterrupted block of leisure time during which I could go to the beach, lie down on a blanket and read a magazine. I remember what it was like to blast my way through a stack of essays between the hours of 8 pm and midnight, before the interrupted sleep of motherhood rendered me useless after sundown. These memories do not linger – they’re like a whiff of French fries when I walk past McDonald’s – they smell good but I know that they tempt me with an indulgence that isn’t good for my health, so I keep on walking. And once their aroma has fled, I marvel at how normal it feels, this new world where the threat level fluctuates from yellow to orange, and I simply go about my life accustomed to a need for vigilance that has become so routine I barely notice it anymore.

38 comments:

flutter said...

Isn't that quintessential mom?

Jenifer said...

So true. At any given moment I know exactly where my girls are, with the exception of some friends who have larger houses and the kids roam between the family room, bedrooms and living rooom.

I find it most reassuring to go out with like families. Families that with just a glance you know that so and so has those two kids covered while you have another one covered.

I recently went out with some people whose children have long grown on an errand for my brother's up-coming wedding. I was so unaccustomed to being out with people who are not used to small children - they are not alert or on duty in any way. And, through the course of the evening when someone assured me they "had" Papoosie Girl , my heart stopped when I realized she was gone and they were still in front of me. Within 30 seconds she had been found, but that 30 seconds was enough for me to pack up and head out. The girls were tired and so was I and I was completely alone with them.

I just returned from a birthday party today with 16 children ranging from 9 to 5 months. I opened juice boxes, fed bottles, carried, bounced, took to the potty, many kids today. That is my life now, spending time with other families who while I am busy watching over my kids so is someone else.

slouching mom said...

Yes.
But.
I do long for the kind of weekend where I could finish an entire book.
Maybe two.

Christine said...

Oh, I know that one ear cocked thing. After a Saturday of puking that ear is picking up the tiniest of wakeful stirs right now.

We, too, were at a bbq last weekend with a big open unfenced yard. I watched my kids and that road like a crazy mama hawk!

Julie Pippert said...

(Trying again without the major typos. LOL)

Yes, I am on all the time. I even sleep more lightly.

What amazes my husband is that I am on all the time. He is surprised how run down I can get.

What amazes me is that my husband can totally tune out and forget to be on.

Not to be morbid, but...

I am so used to children in my arms, heart, mind, eye, ear all the time. It makes me understand how deeply a mother of a lost child grieves. Her senses are always seeking that child, and the grief of not feeling, seeing, hearing...well, anyway, I can understand.

mayberry said...

Like Julie, I find that one of the most exhausting things about motherhood is not only my constant state of alert, but my husband's lack thereof!

And we just fenced in our back yard. Sweet, sweet relief!

theflyingmum said...

The title reminds me of an album called "Awake Is the New Sleep" which reminds me of my life since joining the ranks of motherhood.

Mary G said...

Oh so true. And being a grandmother puts you back into the constant alert again.
Story
I was at a cottage with my two preschoolers and my MIL. We were on the beach and I asked her to watch them while I swam out to the raft and back. Over an hour after I was back, the MIL said to me 'Can you watch the girls for a while so that I can go and start supper.' I realized to my shame that I had put her on duty and forgotten to take her off.
And now I am the same way. Tasked to watch Little Stuff, I have to be told to stop. Weird.

Karen said...

Sometimes, it seems like I'm "off" all the signs are there, but then a phone call, or someone wakes up, or stays home sick and it turns out I was on the whole time. I'd like to learn to enjoy the off moments without it making me so angry when they suddenly vanish...

julie said...

This is so true. I am always on alert.

I enjoyed my visit to your blog.

Blessings,
Julie

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I find that social situations are much easier with children, too -- esp. when I can use them as an excuse to bug out! I wouldn't say I find it normal, though. It's still exhausting.

I don't have a fence. It's OK with just my two kids but hard to manage when the kids have friends over.

kate said...

I love this: Indeed, I find social situations more relaxing when the rigours of child-supervision limit the need for small-talk.

When I first became a mom and would go to the playground in hopes of having a conversation with an actual adult, I was always so frustrated that my supervision-intensive spawn would barely allow me to get two words in before I had to take off after him. Now, a few years later, it is sometimes actually kind of nice, as you say...

cinnamon gurl said...

Indeed, I find social situations more relaxing when the rigours of child-supervision limit the need for small-talk.

Wow. I never thought of it that way. But it's so true! We were at a party last night too and it was nice that we weren't the only ones with kids so everyone knew the drill.

And yes the whiffs of life before kids and how I never REALLY appreciated that freedom. Oh well...

Magpie said...

Such a true post. And me too, the husband lacks the same vigilence; I think the gene is just turned off or something. Recently we acquired some new neighbors, with kids a little older than mine, and she loves to play with "the children". But it means a whole other level of vigilence - where is she, where are they, are they in my house, in their house, in the front yard, back - I swear I'm developing an extra sense.

andrea from the fishbowl said...

The constant state of alertness (okay, AND the sleeplessness) is what I found most exhausting about parenting little kids. I didn't mind doing it, but it got tiring pretty fast.

My girls are 6 and 8 now. We were at the beach on Friday night and I marvelled at them. I was able to sit, and not supervise at arm's length. It was wonderful to watch them, and just as nice to get a little slice of my old life back.

This is one of the main reasons we aren't trying for #3. I don't think I could do it again.

Omaha Mama said...

Wow, this rings true for me. It's like you don't notice the "vigilance" until you're thrown out of routine. My mom was visiting one day after work and I suddenly realized how hectic those first minutes (or hours) at home after work are...because I was trying to chat with her. It was a very broken conversation, as I tended to the minors.

Great post.

Aliki2006 said...

Very true...I remember being so aware of this "new state" early on. I'm still amazed by how quickly I can wake up at night, sensing that my daughter is near the edge of the bed, or that my son has cried out in his sleep.

Jenn said...

Every time I go to the beach now lugging two laundry baskets crammed with stuff, I like to think that in some sub-universe, the other me is also at a beach, with a single bag containing two books, some cd's, the lowest spf tanning oil available and lemon juice for her hair and a towel. Sometimes she might glance over at me, the real me, wistfully, wondering what her life would have been like had she had children, but the moment passes when she sees me telling my kids that, yes, it is too ok to eat sand, no one has died from it. At least no one that I know.

Bon said...

oh, how that resonated.

i think i thought it would lessen, fade, as infancy passed...as the colic went away and the constant "he might scream at any moment" faded. and i suppose in a sense it has...now when he goes down for a nap, i'm pretty shocked if there isn't actually at least an hour where i don't really have to listen with all my cilia, keep my ear on yellow alert. but if he does peep, even with CBC and the dishwasher going, i hear him. somehow, i hear him.

you notice the most interesting things.

metro mama said...

Not me, I'm still all about putting the babes down for the night then breaking out the stemware.

Suz said...

I really love the image of the memories being like the wiff of french fries. While I love the distraction from unmitigating socializing that parenting brings, I also miss the weekends to myself.

Steph said...

The whole thing about kids making small talk/social situations easier is so true. My husband went on a business trip recently and during dinner, he kept looking around for the kids, wishing he could use them as an excuse to duck out of a boring conversation.

Mad Hatter said...

And what happens on those days when you think to yourself "I can never get used to this. I am in a prison." Those days happen too.

mcewen said...

The funny thing is, even when they're older [25!] I don't think you ever lose it. Once that skill is in place, it clicks into action whenever needed.
Cheers

nomotherearth said...

So true. That's why I'm looking forward to our weekend in New York coming up. Broadway Shows? Nice dinners? Shopping?? Yes, that's all good, but what I really want is true, uninterrupted sleep. Priceless.

Lawyer Mama said...

I completely agree about the vigilence making social situations easier. It does. As long as some or most of the other guests are doing the same. I've been in a few situations where our children were the only ones and then I feel the frustration and miss how it "used to be" for a bit.

Beck said...

After having three babies in five years and having a baby underfoot for my entire married life, I can't quite imagine what my life will be like when all of my kids are in school - it will be, I think, wrenching.

Susanne said...

I actually find this divided attention at all times very tiring. I just had five days without my son and it was completely relaxing and productive. (Apart from missing him all the time, that is.)

The alertness doesn't come natural to me. I have to remind me constantly. For my husband it's much easier and natural than for me. But then he doesn't feel the need to micro-manage our son all the time...

There are only two other families with children that we spend time with once in a while and I find that even more stressful since they don't look out for their children and on top of that their children are much more prone to accidents or mischief than ours. So then I'm on triple alert.

Amy said...

It's so true, how mothers are constantly on alert. When I had my baby shower, I registered for a monitor, but I have to admit I haven't used it at all! I tried it the first night or two, but I was conscious of every sound the babies were making, and I got no sleep. Now I just leave my door open, and their door open, and believe me -- I hear them when they need me.

Ruth Dynamite said...

What's interesting too is how quickly the hypervigilance departs once the kids reach a certain age - if only for short blocks of time.

Kelly said...

I've been particularly pining for the easy old days, lately, now that my kids are no longer getting along and my days are filled not with smiles and cooperation, but much yelling and wailing.

But those get-togethers, they are fun. The kids are preoccupied with each other, and the adults get to do adult things, at least for a spell.

NotSoSage said...

I love that you compare your old life to a whiff of McDonald's. I always say the same of KFC.

It may have something to do with having few friends with children (and even fewer with a child older than an infant) but I still really struggle with letting someone know I'm part of the conversation while keeping an eye on Mme L and interrupting with, "[Mme L], use your words, please..." I irritate myself.

Lisa b said...

I feel a little less on "high-alert" with the second one. Your description of that "on-call" state was exactly how I felt when my first ever slept. I think she just wore me out so I am no longer capable of that level of anxiety. Or perhaps it is that this one raises the anxiety level so high it no longer registers.

Kyla said...

I'm with Julie...I am always on, and Josh has this ability to be off that drives me insane at times.

Like Sage, I always feel mildly awful interrupting people to parrot words back to KayTar or look away to spot BubTar, but I really am listening to our conversation the whole time!

Veronica Mitchell said...

The baby and I are at that stage right now where her tiny waking sounds wake me before she cries. I long for a little less alertness, some nights.

On the other hand, the constant competence and watchfulness has created in me a deep-seated desire to get thoroughly drunk, just for the break. I tell my husband this is my plan for when the last baby is weaned. He tells me I'm a lightweight and it will never happen.

Lady M said...

My husband and I call out, "Incoming!" when Q is headed down the hallway, towards the other person. We're still deep in the era of constant supervision, which makes thinking about baby 2 so tiring.

I love your expression of the 'new normal.' I still work late occasionally, but it takes a much bigger toll than it used to.

Luisa Perkins said...

I love that Bub runs around quoting Dr. Seuss!

I also love how the kids give one a convenient excuse to leave a party early...."Oh, I'm SO sorry, but the piano recital is tomorrow, and the kids need to get to bed on time...." Ahhhh, blessed escape.

repo mom said...

My badge of hypervigilance: a permanent, deepening vertical furrow centered between my eyes. I wear it with honor. (Has Botox gone OTC yet?)