Looking back from the vantage point of 30 years since my oldest child was a baby, I can see that time with the clarity of hindsight. Yet even when I was in the midst of mothering him, Joseph taught me a valuable lesson about how important I was to him and about how much my actions affected him.
It was the winter of 1977. Joseph was two and a half. We lived in an 8 foot by 16 foot cabin that Joseph’s dad, Richard, built for us while he built our real house, a 5-sided post and beam structure. We were “back-to-the-land” hippie folk living in Northern California on 2000-acre Navarro Ranch near the town of Cazadero in Sonoma County.
Winter in Cazadero meant rain, more rain than I had ever experienced before. From the middle of October to the beginning of April, Cazadero and its environs received an average of 85 inches of rain. When the county seat of Santa Rosa got one inch of rain in a winter storm, we got six. Curtains of rain poured out of the sky. And the wind! - enough to blow trees down across our dirt road and cause mud to slide, roofs to blow off and windows to blow in.
It had been raining steadily all day. Richard was away at work. Joseph and I were stuck in the 8 foot by 16 foot cabin with a little kerosene heater for warmth and nothing to do it seemed but listen to the rain pounding on the roof and get on each other’s nerves. As the day wore on, Joseph got increasingly more agitated, running around the small space of the cabin, getting dangerously close to the heater, until finally I snapped and I spanked him. Me, the Hippie Earth Mother, the woman who swore that I would never do him physical harm. I spanked my beloved child.
Everything stopped. Joseph looked at me in shock and started to cry. “Mommy!” he wailed. “Look what Mommy did to me!” And he ran to me for comfort. He came to the one person in the world he knew would be there to love and protect him from the very same person who had just injured him. “MOMMY – LOOK WHAT MOMMY DID TO ME!”
Those words reverberated in my brain then and they still do to this day. Joseph was my greatest teacher, my harshest critic, my clearest mirror. As I hugged my child and cried along with him I promised him that I would never spank him again, and I kept my promise.
We can never underestimate the importance our actions and words have on our babies and toddlers. We are their whole world. They learn by watching and interacting with us how to be human, how to love, how to communicate, how to walk and dress and eat and use the toilet. How to BE. What kinds of messages are we giving our children?
What kind of world are you creating for your baby or toddler? If you meet their needs with love and patience, you will teach them that the world is a place where their needs can be met and they can be successful. If you encourage them to grow and try new things, but are there for them when they run to you for comfort after a fall, you will teach them that you will be their safe harbor when the world at large is too scary. You cannot control all the experiences of their young lives, but you can show your baby and your toddler that your love for them is a constant in a world of change.
Soon enough they will be introduced to preschool and then elementary school and youth groups and sports and dance and gymnastics. Their peers will replace you in importance as they grow up and away from you. This is the way of life. You have only a short time to be their main influence, but that time is so very important. You may resent your lack of freedom and privacy and sleep. But I can tell you from my own experience that this time of parenting babies and toddlers – which indeed can seem endless – is really fleeting.
In the midst of all they need and all you have to do to take care of them and manage the rest of your life, it is easy to overlook how important this time is and simply do your best to get through it. You may be just trying to survive and get them to the point where they don’t need you so much. This is my message to you: instead of trying to get THROUGH this time, allow yourself to sink INTO this time. Revel in it. Enjoy being your baby’s and your toddler’s whole world. Swim in the ecstasy of being this close to another being and watching them grow and thrive.
Instead of being tossed about by whatever crisis-du-jour is clamoring for your attention, you can choose to live your life as a spiritual practice and walk the Earth with awareness and intent. You will feel much more PRESENT and able to respond to your baby, your work, your partner, your life. The time will still fly by, but you will be living and experiencing consciously each fleeting moment rather than trying to avoid some moments and hold on to others.
When you blink your eyes your children will be grown up and out of your house. How will they remember you, think of you? Will you be remembered as a good influence? A positive role model? A loving parent?Twenty-seven and a half years after the spanking incident, Joseph remembers what I did for him rather than what I did to him. This year for Mother’s Day, he sent me this email: “Happy Mother’s Day. You are the greatest mother in the world. Really and truly. You gave me the ability to think for myself and also limits within which to understand the world. I am so grateful that I had the up-bringing that I did. Full of wonder and travel and freedom. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day. Love, Joe.”