It’s a common tableau. We are two women – she’s a mom and I’m a grandmother – watching the children in our care playing in the ball pit at a toddler gym program. Her daughter is sitting quietly, watching my granddaughter, who is taking a decidedly different route. My granddaughter – a high-wire act since she learned to walk – is flinging herself through the air, then landing on her belly with a hearty laugh and “I did it!” The other baby looks but does not move.
“How old is she?” the mom asks as my granddaughter picks herself up for another round. I know that in this class mothers refer to their children’s ages in months instead of years, but I never keep track of what month we’re on.
“Umm, let’s see. She was born in June,” I say.
“Oh, so she’s almost two.” I quickly do the math and know this is not the case – she’s only18 months – but I nod and smile instead. Because I am pretty sure this mom is having a case of the I’m-13-Again Blues and I know it well. As a young mom, I was afflicted often. And seriously.
This condition affected me most when I sensed that another child was racing around mine, doing something my kid should be pulling off with ease. But my kid was not doing it very well. Or at all. It would send me to my baby development books to assure myself that we were still within normal range.
You can’t see into the future while you’re still happily ensconced in that dreamland of the hospital maternity unit, that this will ever happen to you in a few months. In the first day or two, everyone visits and their only job is to tell you how perfect your baby is.
That easy part ends when babies all around you begin sitting up, or rolling over, or sleeping through the night. Suddenly, everyone starts keeping score. And maybe when your friend’s baby sits up without a Boppy Pillow supporting him, yours is one of those babies who happily babbles but is more than content to stay on her back and observe the world. It’s the first time, maybe, that you feel competitive in this new space called motherhood. And if your baby isn’t a “winner,” you remember what it was like to be 13. You’re a mom, in charge of this little person who can’t do anything on his own yet. You’re the grownup. But you don’t feel it some days.
For one thing, it’s lonely. This is the part when you recall what it was like to stand on the sidelines at the 6th grade dance while Jennifer M. got chosen by Mike P. and you wanted that dance floor to just open up so you could watch them slide into oblivion and stop feeling so jealous.
For another, it’s scary. You haven’t a clue what the next weeks or months will bring because this has never happened to you before. I spent the whole summer before 6th grade petrified that my best friend and I would not get the same lunch period in our new junior high school. That paled in comparison to worrying that I would have to give up breastfeeding and send my baby into the uncharted waters of (gasp) formula feeders. Everything was up to me, but there were so many things out of my control.
It’s also silly. I’d like to know the hours I spent as a 13-year-old in front of a mirror, consumed with how I looked. Would my face ever grow into my nose? Would I get my period when other girls did? Would my breasts ever grow? In motherhood, I found new worries I never thought existed. Would he walk before he was a year old or would I get those humble brags from other mothers: “Count your blessings he’s not walking yet! I can’t keep up with mine!”
Just so we’re all clear, this revs up during preschool and continues like a hurricane well into kindergarten, meaning you get lots of warning but it still might be worse than you imagined. A friend who taught first grade told me once that whenever a student entered the first day of school and the parent said, “She can read already!” my friend wished she’d had the guts to respond: “Great. But there’s a whole lot more to the story. Let’s talk again in 10 years.”
I sensed the mother at the ball pit was going to carry a visual of my granddaughter well into lunchtime. Maybe she would consult her library of baby milestone books. This part of motherhood can hurt. Just like being 13 hurt. But we get through both.
“And your baby?” I want to say to her. “Perfect.”