LOS ANGELES — I’m going to tell you something embarrassing. Our son, Arlo, is almost a year old and I still write down everything he does in a little book.
What time he ate and how much, when he slept and how long, what time he went to bed and what time he woke up. My husband, Jason, thinks I’m crazy, and he’s probably right. Because if I were honest with myself, the book isn’t for my son, it’s for me.
Looking at it feels like looking at a report card on what kind of mother I am. It helps me feel like I’m doing everything right — that I’m following what the books and baby groups tell me I should be doing.
When Jason gently suggested that maybe we stop writing down our son’s every move, I laughed. How would I know that I was a good mom if the book didn’t tell me? Just trust myself? No. I needed hard evidence.
Arlo is 11 months old now and hugging him is like hugging an anaconda covered in Crisco. Every time I try, he wriggles his body until he’s out of my arms and back to exploring. Apparently, he doesn’t have time for a hug when he could be banging on a metal bowl.
Only at bedtime would he relax and let me cradle him while I walked around the room, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I looked forward to it every night. It was our routine, yes, but I also treasured those rare snuggles. Even more than my book, him breathing softly in my arms made me feel like I was succeeding at this whole mothering thing.
But a few weeks ago, he started squirming during bedtime and whining to be put down in his crib. I didn’t know what to do. This is what had always worked, what the books said to do! So I held him tighter and marched on through our routine, both of us hating it.
For days we struggled, my rendition of “Twinkle” becoming a quick dance-mix version as I tried to get through it faster and faster to end both of our suffering. And then one night, I got home from work late. I was exhausted and frustrated knowing my only interaction with Arlo would be putting him to down to bed. When Jason handed him to me, I tensed, preparing for another battle. He immediately started squirming.
Maybe it was the exhaustion, or the fact that I had come home late every night that week, but I finally did something I’d always been too afraid to do. I tried something new. I looked Arlo in the eyes — difficult because at this point, he was hanging upside-down out of my arms — and told him, “You’re right, this sucks. And we’re not going to do it anymore.”
I sat down in the rocking chair we rarely used, and I put him in my lap. I let go of everything I wanted. Everything I thought I was supposed to do. All of the ways I thought it “should” be. And just started rocking. I didn’t try to hold him or kiss him or even touch his hair.
He perched in my lap, confused for a second. Then I heard him sigh. I felt his little shoulders relax and he leaned back against me, burying his head in my chest. His fingers wound themselves around the folds of my shirt and he closed his eyes. He let me stroke his tiny little baby hairs and I started to sing our song — slow again, like I used to.
I hold on to so many things because of how I think they should be — worried that any change would somehow disrupt my son’s world. Or, maybe closer to the truth, my world.
The world of shoulds and has-tos and must-bes. A world I use to protect myself from all the doubt I have about my ability to be a mom. If I follow the rules, at least that’s a road map. I can point to it and say I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing to get us there safely.
But the way Arlo leaned his head on my chest that night was a reminder that there’s a lot of ways to get somewhere. And as soon as I let go of doing it the “right” way, I got the thing we both needed.
After Arlo was asleep, I wandered into the kitchen and picked up the book. I looked at it for a long time, flipping through the months of information about our son. Information that now felt so much less important. I set it back on the table and walked away.
Then I turned around, picked up a pen, and scribbled, “7:40 p.m.: Asleep.”
Maybe next week.
Jessica Runck, who grew up in Wimbledon, N.D., and graduated from Concordia College, is a writer living in Los Angeles. Visit www.jessicarunck.com for more information.