I greet them every morning in their beds as the sun rises. I lean close, checking for needs, examining their growth. Seeing their little individual spirits rising up with the sun puts a smile on my face. It’s the best way to start the day.
I’m talking about my vegetable garden.
Did you think I meant my children?
I never knew I could be so nurturing until I became a gardener. Honestly, I’m approaching seven years of parenting and still I don’t remember ever being this attentive.
The plants grew slowly. Starting from seed is an opportunity to watch miracles in live action. How that speck of a seed gets all it needs from a messy pile of dirt and a little water is beyond my scope of imagination. But sure enough, in a matter of a couple months my garden has grown from tiny sprout to an overgrown harvest. And I have stood close watching it every step of the way like the attentive mother I never knew I could be. I saw those first sprouts, the tiny blooms that opened slowly growing as the fruit below them grew. I checked in every morning and the garden showed me it was alive.
Did you listen for your children’s breathing? When you brought them home that first night, laid them hopefully into their crib. When they were miraculously sleeping and you knew, because everyone reminded you, that you should be sleeping too. And yet here you are bending over, an investigator at a crime scene, a scientist in a lab. Is that the chest rising I see? I think, yes, indeed I’m certain I feel breath. Or wait, was that the ceiling fan? Lean in again.
Maybe you repeated this until your heart felt as relieved as it ever could be when charged to keep your whole world alive. No pressure. You surely repeated this in an hour. And likely many days after that.
I’m embarrassed to say I never did this. Mostly I was so terrified of having them wake up if I went anywhere near them that I stayed away. When they need me, they will wake me. Meanwhile I will hide. For I only felt capable when they were sleeping.
I wonder if this philosophy has followed along with me as the babies in the cribs have grown. I don’t check on them like I do my plants. I don’t measure their growth the way I used to. Not the way I was trained.
I used to measure children by numbers, like it was my job, because it was. Weekly I would record the progress of the children in my therapeutic care. I would note what we worked on, what they were doing now. I hated the record keeping. But as I look back I see the process of writing down their growth week to week helped me see progress. It was for the parents, for the child, but also it was for me. I was doing something here. I was making a difference.
Please forgive me but I’m going to talk about poop just for a minute. For years we are a part of this intimate reality of our little humans. From the early days we become archeologists of our tiny baby’s excrement. We diagram color, we count frequency, we check for changes like a mood ring. Certainly it gets less complicated, but still we stay dialed in to the regularity of our babies that become toddlers that become preschoolers. "Did he poop" could likely be ranked as one of the top questions my husband and I share with each other. We are in it, often more in tune than our own bodily functions.
I was lamenting the saga that is poop with a friend recently when I said "you know one day we won’t be talking about our children’s poop." That day sounded so far off. And yet…
"Come to think of it," I recalled. "I don’t have any idea the last time Caroline pooped."
It’s true. I hadn’t followed my six year old’s pooping habit in, what, years? Somehow she had gone from needing me to care for her in this intimate way to handling it completely on her own. But I don’t remember when that happened. It just did. She just grew up. As they do.
That’s what it is like for me as I watch my children grow. When in the middle of a very challenging stage, it seems this may just be our forever reality. I have debunked this myth time and again in my years as a parent. And yet still, I find it hard to see the growth through the weeds. We plod along together in this quotidian life. They are always there, always needing me, always requiring me to ask them for the third time that day on the 365th day of the year of our Lord to bring your dish to the counter please and thank you very much. Until suddenly they don’t, and I don’t. But the growth so often goes unnoticed because I am too easily distracted by the meandering path of two steps forward one step back (or two or three or sometimes even four.) To say it simply, it’s exhausting.
My plants never do this. They only ever grow up.
Or do they?
There was that one time I kept waiting for the rain to come as the weather people told me it would. But when it never did, my plants drooped, shrunk even, by the weight of their weary branches just looking for a little water. A little attention. Sure enough, with just a dip of the watering can, next day, they not only came back to life, they appeared larger than I had remembered. They were growing, as they should. All it took was a little love.
Is that all they need too, my children? When they seem to be stuck in a loop of regression or at the very least status quo? Maybe I just need to check on them. Pay attention to where they are in this moment, how far they have come. Believe they will keep growing, even when it seems so far off. I don’t just mean ask them more often about their bathroom practices. I mean really stop and take a moment, particular on the really hard days, and take note of what is new. Yes, this particular season of life, and there are so many seasons, is a challenging one. But I can at least acknowledge we have moved passed the stage of *insert very obnoxious developmental phase. There is growth happening.
So I check on the plants. I check on the children. I look to see how far we have come since that tiny seed first showed its face. I check to see they are alive and breathing.
But what about me? When was the last time I leaned in to check my breathing?
For I can’t see the growth of my children without checking my own pulse too. Am I alive?
Whether it is right or wrong, our growth and progress as mothers is forever entangled in the growing vines of our children. Our branches are their branches, our fruit their fruit. For their birth into this world was our birth too, as mothers, parents, caregivers. When I neglect to notice the daily changes in my children, I am neglecting my own self.
While I am leaning in to check on their breathing, I must remember to feel my heartbeat too. I must notice when I need a little attention, quenching my thirst for water in all the ways possible. Sometimes that is all we need to grow. A little attention and acknowledgement of where we are today compared to yesterday.
I hear his footsteps behind me as I am bending over the tomato plants looking for the little suckers. "Mama, can I help?"
"Sure, you can help me water." I hand him the hose, with the water on a trickle, as I learned he has a tendency to soak rather than sprinkle.
I wouldn’t let him do this last year. I wouldn’t let him help me with anything. He didn’t seem capable. But slowly I learned, through great experiments of trial and error, he does better with a job.
We all do better now that he can help. He gets the positive attention he constantly seeks. I get the satisfaction of finding what works for him. The garden gets a drink. We’re all happy.
They are going to grow a few more inches today, I think. The plants.