Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I could fall in love with a baby after a significant amount of ambivalence about the whole motherhood business. I was never one of those people who thought I couldn’t have a full life without a kid. And then we went ahead and made one. I knew immediately that I’d delivered the greatest baby ever born who’d caused me to unearth a part of myself I’d never quite imagined. I was always loyal and ferocious about the ones I loved. The way I felt about this little girl was beyond all that. I think I tapped into inexplicable primitive emotions that are triggered when someone is dependent on you for living. I don’t know. Maybe it was just another level in my natural intensity.
In the beginning of 1982, Elisabeth was just over 4 months old. I was reluctantly back at work, mostly because I had misgivings about her babysitter, Lilian. When I would show up on my lunch hour to nurse my baby, the sitter would stand behind us, doing her best distracting behavior. She was taking care of a few other kids so I thought she’d get the importance of this time for us. Alas. I believed she was developing an inappropriate emotional attachment to my baby as she mightily wished for a daughter to add to her two boy crew. Finding child care for infants was tough. When chickenpox popped up among the other kids in Lilian’s care, I kept Elisabeth away until the contagion issue was over. I brought my girl to work with me which was a gift in an all-women office where these daily problems of mothering got a sympathetic response. My anxiety over Lilian’s attitude increased when she piled all her other day care kids into her car and unannounced, dropped by our house to check on mine. The hunt for a new caregiver began.
By spring we’d been lucky enough to find a day care center which had an infant room. We worried about the illness odds that would increase exponentially because of exposure to so many kids, but were less afraid that our baby would be stolen by a person with emotional problems. A struggle with persistent ear infections began soon after this switch. While visiting my parents in Chicago she got her first bad one. She ran very high fevers and I cried the first time this happened. I had to toughen up and get ready for the many “firsts” to come. That visit to Chicago was for about a week in late March. My dad, who’d had five coronary artery bypasses three years earlier, had been experiencing angina attacks. I wanted to be with my folks in advance of an appointment to explore his problems. They were both fools for this baby. Michael was unhappy with our leaving, concerned that a week was too long and that he’d be forgotten by his kid, out of sight, out of mind.
My father’s appointment went poorly. Three of his bypasses had shriveled, necessitating another surgery to replace them. He was hospitalized and furiously mistrustful, accusing the doctors of all kinds of malpractice and refusing to submit to the procedure. He was stubborn and impossible. But he loved my baby. We drove to the hospital, where he was lying secluded in his bed, all the drapes pulled around him, isolating him from view. When we walked in, I pulled back the curtain. Like a game of peek-a-boo, Elisabeth let out a shriek of delight when she saw her grandfather emerge from nowhere. He, in turn, was thrilled that this little kid had immediately recognized him. She was the convincing factor in getting him to take his chances with another surgery. The operation was scheduled for the next Monday, leaving the weekend open for a visit from Michael. I’ll never forget their reunion. My mom had E. in her bedroom when Michael arrived. After greeting each other, I stayed in the living room so he could have some moments for just the two of them. When he walked down the hall and turned into the room, I heard E’s piercing screams of recognition. Michael was joyous and both of us marveled at how there were people who thought small babies were just blobs. Not this girl.
I stayed in Chicago for dad’s surgery, entertaining E. in the cardiac waiting room for hours. I actually felt like having a lively baby around was good for the anxious families. Dad, referred to by his surgeon as a tough old bird, survived and did well. Next, we had a brutally cold snap hit with heavy snow and below freezing temperatures and miserable windchills. I remember us driving home in terror that April, fearful that our less than fabulous car would break down, leaving us with a frozen baby. But we made it back without problems.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the angst about babysitters and sick parents, Michael and I were deeply involved in studying the little person we’d made. Although we didn’t get pregnant when we’d hoped we would, we realized that having had almost ten years on our own was a great gift. We’d had a lot of time to learn about each other, to establish a strong foundation for handling the inevitable conflicts that arise between parents who grew up differently from each other. We’d also had lots of fun – trips, partying, rock and roll concerts and lolling around together doing everything that comes with love. So we were pretty focused on our kid. Michael was worried that my aggressive personality would dominate our child-rearing. Hmm…He insisted we were splitting her straight down the middle. I called him Mr. Fifty-fifty which really annoyed him. We used cloth diapers which we felt were better for the baby and the environment. Both of us did diaper duty. One time, I was looking down at her, talking and engaging her when suddenly her smile crumpled. That’s because I put a diaper pin straight through her tender skin. Ugh. Michael liked doing baths and arranging hairstyles when she had enough to arrange. He especially enjoyed presenting her like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals or Pebbles from the Flintstones.
I was busy looking for personality traits. Elisabeth exhibited determination early in her life. I used to place a toy just out of reach when she was just a few months old to see how she’d respond. Michael said I was sadistic but I was mostly curious to know about her. She couldn’t really crawl but she’d get a bead on what she wanted and manage to wriggle herself forward to get her hand on the desired object. We bought these Swedish crib toys from a company called Semper. A thick red rod was attached to the crib sides. Large red screws with backs were used to tightly adhere stimulating activity accessories to the bar. One was a ball spinner with yellow rods and green globes. When one was hit another would immediately appear. I remember the first time she reached the first ball. A major effort. Ultimately she hit the balls so hard that each one was whirling like a ferris wheel. The music box had a round blue pull loop. Initially she’d make contact with it and a musical note sounded. Over time, she understood that the harder she pulled, the more music came, in addition to the sun and clouds shifting from side to side. Listening to a baby learning and being self-motivated was wonderful.
Spring came. We’d go outside to sit in the yard. Elisabeth was afraid of grass for awhile, always staying on her blanket. One time, as I had a strong aversion to stinging insects, I jumped up and ran when a couple of bees circled us, leaving her alone on the blanket. Not exactly a testimony to maternal instincts. Living that down took some time.
As my dad grew stronger, we spent lots of weekends visiting my parents in Chicago or alternately, having them visit us at our home. Having extended family nearby was a gift. They loved being with her while she never was fearful around them as they were so familiar. Elisabeth started changing rapidly as babies do, practicing crawling and pulling herself to a standing position. Verbal and responsive, we taught her about feelings, what was happy or sad, worried or confused. A natural ham, she had high entertainment value.
We had taken over most of our house except for one apartment where our friend Brian lived while he was in graduate school. He was part of our family and spent lots of time with our kid. Michael especially, so unused to an intimate family life, was finally realizing his dream of truly being part of an integrated loving world. Despite the normal adjustments to being parents we were pretty much blissed out that year.
I remember applauding each step of Elisabeth’s development that subtly changed our daily life. Crawling, practicing walking, dancing to the ever-present music in our house was fun. We were often tired but the kind of tired that comes with exhilaration. Michael and I had vowed to keep our relationship on the front burner so we had a date once a week, ever mindful that one day, life would go back to being just the two of us. Spring and summer went fast. Before we realized it, the first birthday was upon us.
I don’t know why, as we planned that first birthday party, I decided to chop off my long naturally wavy hair for your basic curly mullet. Maybe that felt like a more maternal hairdo. In any event, we had a big bash with lots of family, friends and their kids. I had two cakes made, one for the guests and one which we hoped Elisabeth would dive into, face-first. Ironically, she was hesitant, which wasn’t usual. Maybe there were too many people around. She was also frightened of the wooden rocking horse she received. The hazards of wretched excess on my part, I suppose, as I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than celebrating our girl in a big way.
So just like that, age one came and went. My parents stuck around for a few extra days to enjoy more time with our sprightly kid. Now we had a walker with all that implies, in terms of getting busier and taking more precautions as our scamp was exploring the attractive corners of the house. Part of having a portable child is the security of knowing you have some measure of control over scary incidents. I think you only figure that out when it’s behind you. Living and learning.
In early September, we made a trip up to Chicago where Michael and I took advantage of my parents’ fascination with Elisabeth. We dressed up and went out to visit with our old friends who lived in the city. However, I wasn’t remotely prepared to spend a night away from our baby as one, I was still nursing her, and two, I just didn’t feel the time was right. I couldn’t understand those parents who were able to be apart from their babies. I felt most strongly that until little ones acquired communication skills, they were really vulnerable. I needed a few more years before I was ready to make that choice and Michael was in agreement with me. Anyway, he was utterly dazzled and wrapped around the tiny finger of his Diz.
October came along with Halloween. A tiny broom and a pointy hat were all we needed to do a costume for our little bewitching kid. I brought Elisabeth to my office that day as my mates were always glad to see her, especially she’d spent time with everyone during the chickenpox quarantine.
The next few months were full of events. In November, we joined my extended family for Thanksgiving in the south suburbs of Chicago where my brother lived with his family. Elisabeth was the littlest cousin who got to sit at the kids’ table for as long as she could be still. Food wasn’t particularly important to her. Playing was her thing.
December was a slow month. We snuggled in for the winter. Our girl was quite a character. She loved looking at books, listening to music and building towers which went straight up, as opposed to exhibiting any geometric configurations. Looking back, it’s easy to see the roots of her later preferences which were obvious from an early age. We were getting ready to transfer her from her day care center across town to one a mere half block from my office and two blocks from home. The good news was that one friend from there was coming with her, the beginning of a friendship that has lasted her whole life to date.
I remember so much about this first year of parenthood. Firsts of everything. First sickness, first rolling over, first crawling, first walking, first words. I was over the moon most of the time, buying expensive baby clothes at the kid boutique, ridiculously priced shoes at Andy’s Shoe Store because you only get one pair of feet, and generally trying to make sure my kid never wanted for anything the way I did. Certainly at this age, all that was preposterous but classic in trying to fix the issues we all carry from our own childhoods. Michael was also trying to work hard on being engaged and close to his daughter, erasing the emptiness he felt as a kid. The two of us were growing together which was such a bonus. We were lucky. Our relationship was strong and effortless, a great way to start, knowing that there would be bumps in the road because that’s how life works.
We celebrated Hannukah at home, with Elisabeth receiving her bunny Frances, who became one of her favorite companions, along with her soft, squishy doll Abby. Next there was her holiday party at her day care center which was mostly ridiculous. What was clear was that the kids had no clue what was happening. In one photo below, she’s sitting next to her friend, Marie Louise, with whom she had a play date. I remember that her mother told me that she would serve them spaghetti for lunch and that I should know she always washed her hamburger meat before cooking it. I was glad to know there was a mom who was crazier than me.
So 1982 came to an end. Michael and I went on a hot date for New Year’s Eve. Looming was 1983.