“Was I a difficult baby?” my teenage son asks.
“What? No. You were so sweet.” I remember the post-partum euphoria. I was so in love—not in the creepy, co-dependent, Oedipal way, but in the sense that I was completely submerged in my love for this child. I sank into it, let it close over my head, breathed it deep into my lungs.
He’s seeking information for his psychology class. They’re learning about brain development in babies and how they react to their environments. But my answer is deeper than a flippant response.
Let me explain the intensity of my baby-love. When I was five months pregnant and heavily nauseated, my husband returned to our tiny Tokyo apartment after spending the evening with clients at a garlic restaurant. Everything in the joint was flavored with garlic, even the ice cream, and when he walked in the door, the smell hit me like a shoe to the face. He reeked of it. And not just his breath—it was coming out of his pores.
“Should I sleep in the living room tonight?” he asked, apologetically.
“No,” I replied. “This is supernaturally bad. We’re probably going to have to divorce. We had a good run, though.”
For days, the garlic smell emanated from him like he was some kind of reverse air freshener. I loved my newborn kid like that garlic smell. It came off me in waves. My daughter would not be born for another almost eight years, so he got the full blast of my maternal attention.
I don’t say all this to my son, though, because it would freak him out and we are in a moving vehicle. Instead, I just say, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, was I hard to put to sleep, nervous around strangers, picky about food?”
“Oh, well. If that’s how we’re defining difficult, then I guess, yeah.”
It’s hard for me to know if he was an anxious, finicky kid or if he was simply reacting to my anxious, finicky parenting. I’ve heard the term “helicopter parent” bandied about, but the truth is, helicopter is too distant a term for the way I parented. Helicopters are all the way up there in the sky, for Chrissakes.
In Hawaii, there’s a type of limpet snail called ‘opihi. They live on the rocks in the shallows of the beaches, clinging tightly so as not to be washed away by the waves. I mothered like an ‘opihi. That child was against my body almost every waking moment of his infancy; it was the only way my anxiety could be soothed.
“Did I cry a lot?” my son asks.
Again, it’s hard to know. I comforted him so swiftly, who knows if he’d have cried for long? My husband and I were on our own as new parents. Our families were thousands of miles away—his on the East Coast, mine in Hawaii. We just did what came naturally, and I embraced my ‘opihi nature. My husband once bragged to friends, “Matthew has never cried for more than a minute in his life. Nanea is always right there.” I didn’t miss the meaningful look that couple exchanged, but what did they know?
I had a stiff back for two years, because our child slept with us in our king-sized bed and I curled around him like a shrimp. (Apparently, I’m a shellfish when it comes to motherhood.) Sure, we had to get creative when it came to “performing our marital duty” as one mom I knew called it, but it kept us playful and fun. And every night, I drifted to sleep to the smell of my baby’s hair and the feel of his warm body against mine. I found out later from some hippie-dippie friends that this is called attachment parenting. My inner ‘opihi was deeply validated.
I wonder now what it would have been like if I’d fought my anxiety. If we’d let our reactive little baby cry it out, tried to encourage him to play independently more, made him talk to strangers instead of letting him burrow into us for safety. My back would have been less achy, I guess.
He’s 18 now and I’m happy to report that none of the dire predictions well-meaning friends and relatives made over the years came true. The ones that all went something like, “If you do _____, then he’ll never learn to _____.” He sleeps on his own—has for years and years. He talks to people who are not his parents, has friends, does well in school, and doesn’t cry all day when we drop him off. He doesn’t expect me to rock him on my shoulder every time he’s upset, which is good because the stubble from his beard would probably scratch my face. He eats all kinds of food and doesn’t even need me to cut it up.
As it turns out, he grew up just fine. Maybe in spite of my ‘opihi mothering. Maybe because of it. Maybe none of that mattered except for in those moments.
It wasn’t perfect. I probably kept him from having more experiences. I probably kept me from having more experiences. And after that initial euphoria wore off, I went into thick, gray depression that broke occasionally but didn’t fully lift for a couple of years. I’m prone to clinical depression, though, so I think that might’ve happened anyway.
All I know is that we clung to each other, like limpets at high tide, my son, my husband, and I. I can’t regret a single moment of that. He’s almost a man now, but I swear he was a toddler with an oversized head just yesterday.
Photo credit: “Opihi at Kealaikahiki, Kahoolawe, Hawaii” by Forest and Kim Starr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.