Being a mother has made me hyper-aware of things. There are so many corners just the right height for a little head to knock into and everything comes with too much salt. It’s not just external things I notice, but also my own idiosyncrasies. My daughter, Autumn, began saying “Okay” after everything a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t figure out why. Suddenly, I heard myself saying it, too – all the time. It took just a moment to realize that she was my parrot, my mini-mirror. As both a teacher and a mom, I leave school, but never stop instructing, often unintentionally, because there’s always a tiny set of eyes on me, making mental notes and mimicking my every move.
Everyone always says the focus becomes your child when you become a parent, but I’m beginning to understand that so much of what Autumn takes in is based on what I put out. How can she become confident if her female role-model is insecure? How can she remain calm when her mom is continuously anxious? All she knows is what she sees, and it makes me wonder about the example I’m setting. When it came to screen time, I learned that if I wanted her to use them less, I needed to as well. But what about when it comes to the way I treat others and the daily choices I make? If Autumn is paying attention, I better be as well.
I think about when I come home from work. Tod, my goldendoodle, is squealing with excitement. He’s jumping out of his skin, darting back and forth, and then leaping up on me. I return his contagious enthusiasm. When I first went back to work, Autumn would stand next to him, her hands braced against the glass. A few months in, and Tod still acts like a maniac at first sight of me, but Autumn? She’s busy playing with Papa’s phone or watching Frozen, and I wonder what caused the change. How did she go from pointing and shouting “Mama!” to face down, engrossed in punching keys? And then, when I find no answers in the world, I look inside myself.
Often, I scream, “Tod-dy!” with the same energy he exudes. Never do I shout her name, except on occasion when it occurs to me. It’s then I say:
“Au-tumn!” the way Bob Barker named contestants on “The Price is Right.” She beams with delight at the acknowledgement, and I wonder how often she feels unnoticed. Am I outwardly prioritizing other things too often? Everyone has laundry to put away and dishes to wash, but where is the line drawn between getting chores done and being present?
At work, my colleagues and I wonder where some kids get the nerve to act the way they do, and then we meet the parents.
“Apple tree,” we say.
As educators working closely with families, we get to know moms and dads, and see the fruits of their labor. There are vast differences both socially and academically between the kids with supportive parents, and those with overbearing or silent ones. I watch my students, and wonder which one Autumn will become. Will she raise her hand or sit back and wait? Will she help clean or just make the mess? Will she focus or daydream?
I think about how the apples for sweet pies do not come from wilted trees, and decide that despite common sentiments – that once you are a parent, everything becomes about the child – we cannot leave ourselves behind. Because we are the source of everything that our sons and daughters do – or do not – become.
I want Autumn to feel seen and important, and so I need to recognize her. I want her to be independent, but also loving, and so I need to find the balance between washing the dishes, and also letting her play in the bubbles. And most of all, I want to plant the seeds that she can be anything, do anything, and so as I write this, and hope to spend so much more of my life composing essays, I tell myself the same.