Feed on

There’s a Philip Larkin poem I remember well from college, not least in part because of a celebrated four-letter word in the opening line. It goes like this:

“They mess* you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were messed* up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Uplifting, isn’t it? So will I avoid messing Simon up? Unlikely. I can already see the projection of my own faults and vulnerabilities onto him, and it will be a miracle if Simon can dodge them all.

Last Friday, I was talking to an old high school friend of mine, Jennifer, and telling her about Simon’s trip to the pediatrician and how happy the doctor seemed with Simon’s general progress and care. At the end of my little speech, she looked at me and gently teased, “Are you getting an ‘A’ in motherhood, Jessica?”

Busted. Whether it be feeding, diapering, or playing with Simon, I am always concerned with getting it right. And I am very defensive about the things I know I do wrong. Tummy time? Well, I know I am supposed to be doing this, but Simon gets so upset and then barfs all over the place. I’ll do it later… It’s not just that I feel bad for getting a ‘C’ at tummy time, it’s that I really want to petition for a higher grade or an excused absence on this count. Can we audit tummy time? Take it pass/fail? It’s bringing my average down…

So that covers perfectionism. Shall we move on to anxiety? I hate it when Simon is fussy in front of others. Not because I think it makes him a bad baby, but because I don’t want others judging him harshly. When Steve and Stacy first offered to babysit for me, I wasn’t as interested as you’d have thought. They were free at 8 p.m. or so, that was Simon’s worst time of day, and I didn’t want him to seem like a difficult or “bad” baby. I wanted him to be liked.

Then there were the episodes with the grandmothers. When Simon has a fussy day while my mom or Evie is taking care of him, my skin crawls, my back stiffens, and I am all apologies and anxiety. They are doing me such a favor, what if watching Simon begins to be a burden? What if it’s not fun? What if they think he doesn’t like them? Worse, what if they don’t like him?!

My rational mind knows that babies cry and that grandmothers of all people know that babies cry. This reaction and worry, of course, has nothing to do with my rational mind. It may not even have much to do with poor Simon. It’s more likely all about me. Me wanting to be liked. Me wanting to be “good”. Me being anxious about being liked and being good.

I can just about get a handle on these feelings when new worries appear: How can I keep Simon from smoking when he’s a teen? How can I keep him off drugs? How can I make him really understand the dangers of drinking and driving? What will I say to him the first time a friend hurts his feelings? The first time his heart gets broken?

I’m counting on Matt’s much less anxious and perfectionistic personality to help us out here. I’m sure he doesn’t worry about his grade in fatherhood, just as I’m sure he doesn’t worry so much when Simon is fussy. Simon will have much less test anxiety and sleep better at night if he can take after Matt. The thought of Matt’s mellowing genes calms me down for a while. But then other thoughts crowd my mind. What if Simon is as messy as his father? What if, like Matt, he never does his homework in seventh grade?

The list goes on. Looks like I’ll be messing Simon up now matter how hard I try not to.

But I wonder, what new faults will I throw in just for him?

* The celebrated four letter word was more vulgar than “mess”, but this is a family blog.

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