Decades ago, way before I became a parent, I read a women’s magazine article — more a list than an article, really — detailing every goddamn task and chore the author mom-handled over the course of a typical day of parenting. I was a fancy-free editor in the city then. I rarely rose before 8:30, ambled into the office at 10, and kicked up my kitten heels regularly at salsa-dance clubs in Lower Manhattan where I met Wall Street guys who took my number but only wanted to meet up with me at a party in Bridgehampton if the party was also going to be attended by models. Despite my “Sex and the City” lifestyle (and I hope you realize I’m using the word “lifestyle” in air quotes), I’d always nursed a secret interest in the Middle American domestic arrangements described in Ladies Home Journal.
I wanted to mail-order craft kits for homemade Christmas ornaments from the ads in Redbook, but lived alone in a back apartment near the Flatiron Building and had no one to craft with. I was unsure whether to even believe the inventory of parenting tasks the author/mom recorded in her “everything I do in a day” list; it seemed so far-fetched. She was, she said, up at 5 a.m. for a half hour on the Exercycle, then it was shower and blow-dry at 5:30; cooking pancakes at 6, packing peanut-butter-free lunches at 6:15, taking out the trash and popping towels in the dryer at 6:30 . . . on it went relentlessly, a new task to check off the list every few minutes, until 11 p.m., when she ironed the next day’s work outfit, walked a golden retriever by streetlamp-light, and climbed into bed beside her husband to pay bills. It didn’t seem credible that a human being could maintain such a pace, and if it was true, was this something I could willingly do myself?
Many times over the last 13 years, since my daughter arrived home at the age of 1, I’ve wanted to astonish everyone with my own list of all the tasks and errands I accomplish daily. I can hardly believe, myself, that I wake up by 6:30, and not infrequently by 5:45 a.m., in order to begin the varied and often esoteric chores of momming, from goldfish-feeding to trumpet-renting. (In college I was nocturnal. I remember one time having to leave my dorm room at 7:30 a.m. for an appointment and walking down Broadway in a state of wide-eyed wonder, experiencing the glory of the morning as if it were a walk on Mars, the daylight and the clatter as the Cuban-sandwich man in his apron rolled up the shutters at La Rosita.) Every midnight as I wipe Manwich grease off the stovetop, every 3 p.m. when I manage to drive one child to soccer practice and another to tennis while simultaneously utilizing my Honda’s CarPlay phone hookup to schedule a date with a plumber about a leaky hot-water boiler, I make a mental note that it should all go down on my Astonishing List.
I’m not telling you anything you didn’t know. I guess my point is that, as we age, we surprise ourselves by becoming different than we thought we were. We thought we were solid and immutable, but we change. That’s the surprise.
Another chestnut of the women’s magazines that I used to read so avidly, back when I had spare time to browse the bras at Century 21, were the numbered lists of “Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Had Kids.” These Things would be tidbits of wisdom delivered in prose of unnecessary solemnity, with frequent mentions of the words “exhaustion” and “guilt”: “I wish I had known that it’s okay for your house not to be as clean as Martha Stewart’s” and “I wish I had known that your best is good enough.”
For about 12 years now, I’ve been intending to jot down my own “Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Had Kids” as well, but — see Number Three, below — in all that time have only ever remembered to make note of eight Things. Here are my meager pearls of wisdom.
One. Tell the children that Santa only brings one toy at Christmas, and the rest are from you. Do this because your children are not stupid and sooner or later will ask the reasonable question of “Why do kids from poor families get fewer presents or none at all? Does Santa not love them?”
Two. The children will want to follow you into the bathroom, and they will persist in following you into the bathroom every single time you go into the bathroom from the moment they can crawl until they are well into their teens. I don’t know why. Maybe because they want your undivided attention and your march into the bathroom feels like maternal rejection? You won’t shower or sit on the toilet uninterrupted until they go to college.
Three. Fear will keep your kids safer than hypervigilance will. Babies are born with instincts of self-preservation, and instinct is a much more secure guardrail than helicopter hovering by mom and dad. When they were toddlers, I let my kids run ahead of me on the sidewalk or on the beach, trusting that, no, they wouldn’t actually hurl themselves over a precipice or into hurricane surf. Chasing them would only have introduced that possibility to their little minds. Other moms would gasp and run to grab their small hands, but I was right and they were wrong. Putting small children on a leash either actual or metaphorical is a mistake, because leashed kids, when let loose, are the ones who will hurl themselves over dangerous cliffs, expecting to be caught. This is a broad truth, I.M.H.O. It also pertains to stuff like homework. The natural guardrail of fear (of the teacher, of failing) will ensure your kids do their homework much more effectively than mom or dad sitting alongside, cajoling, and completing half their long division for them. Don’t introduce the idea that someone will do it for them; someone doing it for them isn’t even within the scope of the possible.
Four. Your children will not play with hand-crafted wooden toys. They will not play with the virtuous woolen Waldorf doll you spent $150 dollars on. You think your future children’s toy horde will be tasteful, eco-friendly, and confined to a trunk in their bedroom, but it will not. Your entire living room, kitchen, and basement — your entire existence — will be subsumed by a tsunami of horrid, ugly plastic junk made in sweatshops in China.
Five. The tsunami of horrid, ugly plastic toys made in sweatshops in China too shall pass. Every difficulty of parenting is much more fleeting and temporary than it feels when you are in the thick of it.
Six. Hot Pockets aren’t the end of the world. They contain three food groups (tomato sauce is a vegetable, mozzarella is dairy, and crust is a grain).
Seven. “Mom brain” is not a figment of mom’s imagination, and, furthermore, even adoptive moms can suffer from it acutely. (Mom brain may be hormonal, but the hormones involved are not necessarily released by childbirth. I can attest.) And by mom brain I do not mean only the forgetfulness and inability to focus that come with too little sleep and too much stress; I mean, your thoughts themselves will be subpar. I definitely stopped having ideas for a few years there. By the time my son arrived and I was wrangling two small Ethiopians, my measurable intelligence had declined by a percentage of at least a quarter. I was a quarter dumber. My writing was bad. Maybe this is some sort of autonomic shunting of intellectual juices to the sectors of the cerebellum essential to primary-parenting — akin to the shunting of blood away from the extremities, redirected toward the essential organs, when a body is in shock? I dunno. But, anyway, this, too, shall pass.
Eight. Say “no” to the Elf on the Shelf. Santa phoned to say that the children are good already and don’t need an elf to spy on them and report back. I repeat: Say “no” to the Elf on the Shelf.