It Gets Better

Letter to My Teen Self ArtDear Me,

You know how you feel when you see the “Runaway Truck Ramp” sign on the highway? Like there must be an eighteen-wheeler barreling massively behind you, on the brakeless verge of destroying your beautiful, doomed life? You can picture the tiny, rosy-cheeked children screaming, clinging to you, since you are, of course, riding in the back with them the better to distribute string cheese and hand-holding and the occasional contorted breast, bared and stretched towards somebody’s crying face, but only if they’ve been crying for a long time. About to be crushed—all of it. But runaway truck also feels like a metaphor for something—for you, maybe, with your impulse to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes with a sandwich and a glass of beer. Just so you can use the bathroom one time, without having a concurrent conversation about poop with the short person who has to stand with a consoling hand on your knee, looking worriedly up into your straining face. Later, it won’t be like that. You’ll see the sign, and the nearby gravelly uphill path, and you’ll think, “That’s a good idea, for the runaway trucks.” Also, you will shit alone.

You know how you know by heart the phone number of the Poison Control Center? Because the children, your constantly imperiled children, like to eat ice melt and suck batteries and help themselves to nice, quenching guzzles of cough medicine? You won’t know that number anymore.

One day, the children will eat neither pennies nor crayons nor great, gulping handfuls of sand like they have a powerful thirst for sand, sand, only sand. They will no longer choke on lint and disks of hot dog or fall down the stairs, their heads making the exact, sickening, hollow-melon thump that you knew they would make, when you knew they would fall down the stairs. They will still fall out of trees and off of trampolines. They will still scrape their elbows and knees and foreheads, and you will still be called upon to tend to these injuries. And you will be happy to, because they so rarely need you to kneel in front of them any more, to kiss them tenderly, here, and also here. Rest assured, though, that there will be ongoing opportunity for the knelling likelihood of doom and destruction. Ticks will attach their parasitic selves to the children’s scalps and groins; rashes and fevers and mysterious illnesses will seize everyone, and you will still go on a Googling rampage of “mild sore throat itchiness coma death.” The kids will still barf with surprising frequency—but competently, into tidy buckets, rather than in a spraying impersonation of a vomit-filled Super-Soaker on the drunk frat boy setting.

You know how you see germs everywhere? Every last microbe illuminated by the parental headlamp of your OCD? One day you won’t. One day you will handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. In a public bathroom, the children will no longer need to touch and/or lick every possible surface. Seriously.

You know how you’re tired? So tired that you mistake talking in an exhausted monotone about your tiredness for making conversation? You won’t be tired. Or rather, you will sometimes be tired, sometimes rested, like regular people are. You won’t have to blearily skim the passage of the novel you’re reading, where the protagonist lies down on her soft bed, between crisp, clean sheets, your own eyes filled with tired, envious tears. You won’t daydream about rest and recumbency, lawn chairs and inflated pool rafts and white hotel comforters. You won’t look forward to the dentist, just so you can recline alone for forty heavenly, tartar-scraping minutes. One day, you will once again go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You will sleep as much as you want to. You’ll actually be shocked if you don’t get to, if a child is ill or can’t fall asleep, even though now you lie wedged into various cribs and cots, night after night, still as a button, while a small somebody drifts off and snaps awake gropingly and drifts off again. “How did we used to do it?” you will say, and your husband will shake his head and grimace. You will no longer be constantly scheming to lie down, tricking the kids into playing another round of “Sick Patient,” so you can be dead on the couch while they prod you therapeutically with plastic screwdrivers and the doll’s bottle. “I’m still not better,” you mumble now, but you will be. You really will.

One day, you’ll be sitting on the couch with your husband, reading the Sunday paper, and around the time you’re getting to the book review, you’ll think to ask, “Are the kids still sleeping?” And he’ll shrug without putting down the sports section. The kids might be sleeping, or they might be reading in their beds, playing with Legos, stroking the cat, bickering gently, resolving their differences. And you will be awake, even though you don’t have to be. I swear it on a stack of attachment-parenting books. Speaking of the newspaper: You will one day climb back into bed with the heavy wedge of folded sections and an unspilled mug of hot, milky coffee. You will even do the crossword puzzle—and all the puzzles you’ve been saving. It’s okay—I know about the newspaper that still arrives constantly, either because you’re in denial amount the way you recycle it unread, or because you cannot recall your account password and don’t have the intelligence or emotional resiliency to figure out how to cancel your subscription. But still you tear out the Sunday crossword and stuff it into your bedside table with this crazy idea that you might get to it later. And you will. You’ll open the drawer one evening (to ferret out some birth control, no less) and you’ll find the archaeological evidence of your optimism: hundreds of puzzles spanning a sizable chunk of the early millennium. And you’ll lie around doing them in a kind of ecstatic trance, practically eating bonbons and weeping with happiness.

You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. And sometimes you won’t, but it won’t even be the children’s fault. It’s just that you’re lazy. Or doing a crossword puzzle.

You know your body? How it’s like baggy, poorly curated exhibit about reproduction? You know how your weaned bosom looks like a cross between a pair of used condoms and Santa’s sack, on the day after Christmas? All empty and stretched out with maybe one or two lumpy leftover presents that couldn’t be delivered? It will all get better. The bosom will never again look like a bursting gift-filled bag of awesome, that’s true. But it will look less harrowed by motherhood; the breasts, they will tighten up a bit. All of it will tighten up a bit and be yours again, to do with what you will. For example, your husband won’t gesture to you at a party after you’ve been nursing the baby. “What?” you mouth back now, sticking a fingernail between your teeth. “Spinach?” And he shakes his head and points at your front, and you look down to see the elastic top of your tank top, and how your left breast is hanging over it. That won’t happen any more. But it’s true that some of your many nipple hairs will turn gray.

Even though you’re older, though, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat/seat belt/shoes/socks/sippy cups/diapers/turd on the floor. Why, you wonder, does so much of your current life take place below you? (It’s because the kids are small.) One day infants and diaper bags and hemorrhoids and boobs won’t be hanging off of your person like you’re a cross between a human mobile and a Sherpa and a performance art piece about Dante’s Inferno. The flip side is that there will be fewer cuddles. Lots still, but fewer. For example, every morning you will have to kiss your twelve-year-old good-bye not on the school walkway, but in the bushes before you get there, like you’re sneaky, chaste teenagers.

You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids, but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice skating, swimming, singing in the rain—how they all end in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling? All those things really will be fun! You’re just doing them too soon because you’re bored of HI-Ho Cherry-o and the diaper-smell Children’s Room of the library and those hairshirts of conversation about would you stay partners with Daddy if he turned into a mosquito and was always buzzing around and stinging everybody but had his same face? One day, you will watch Monty Python and The King’s Speech with the kids, instead of Arthur’s Easter Egg Surprise and Caillou by Mistake Draws on a Library Book, and you will hardly believe your good luck. At the dinner table, you’ll talk about natural selection and socialized medicine. You’ll arrive at your campsite, and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss, rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to get run over by a Jeep. Your vigilance will ebb away until you actually take for granted how it feels to sit with a beer in your hand, looking unworriedly up at a sky full of stars with a lapful of big kid.

They will still believe in fairies. Sort of.

They will buckle their own seatbelts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels. They will do most, if not all, of the important things that you worry they’ll never be able to do, ever, such as following the pendulum of your finger with their gaze and wading in the neighbor’s inflatable pool and riding the merry-go-round (phew!). Speaking of merry-go-rounds: The years will start to fly by surreally, the seasons recurring like you’re captive on a deranged carousel of time. The dogwood will bloom, it will be Christmas, the dogwood will bloom again, the children will start middle school. That is how it will be.

They will stop doing most of the annoying things that you worry they’ll always do: They won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason, or announce guiltily, “Floss isn’t for eating,” or make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, no, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch. They won’t talk about poop all the time. Kidding. They will still totally talk about poop all the time!

Not to be all baby out with the bathwater, but they’re also going to stop doing some of the things you love. They will learn that the line from “Eleanor Rigby” is not actually all the lonely peacocks. They won’t squint into the darkness and marvel at the moon beans, or hold their breaths when you pass the gravetary. They will no longer announce odd questions into the darkness of bedtime. “Mama, mama—how do cats turn into old cats?” And you will no longer sigh and say, “Time.” But they will be funnier on purpose. “Is that a robin?” your daughter will ask one day, pointing to a bird hopping along the hedge. When you say no, “Robins have red breasts,” she will say, “Plural? Breasts?” and use two index fingers to pantomime a bosom. They will make you laugh all the time, and they will make you think, and they will be exactly as beautiful as they are now. But with missing and giant teeth instead of those minuscule rows of pearls you so admire.

You know how you secretly worry that this is it, that it’s all downhill from here? I know you do. The children will turn into hulking criminals; their scalps will turn odorless; life will just generally suck. You lie in bed now during a thunderstorm, two sleeping, moonlight faces pressed against you, fragrant scalps intoxicating you, the rain on the roof like hoof beats, heartbeats—and the calamity of raising young children falls away because this is all you ever wanted. You boo-hoo noiselessly into the kids’ hair, because life is so beautiful, and you don’t want it to change. Enjoy it, do. But let me tell you—you won’t believe it, but let me—you will watch them sleeping still and always: the illuminated down of their cheeks, their dark puffs of lips and dear, dark wedges of eyelashes, and you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.

Author’s Note: When Ben was three weeks old or so, sobbing in the front pack at the natural foods market while I fantasized about killing myself with an overdose of patchouli, a woman leaned in close to say, “Enjoy this. It’s such a fun age.” Then her head all but spun around, green vomit spraying from her mouth, when she added, “It’s all downhill from here.” So, I just want to be clear here that I wrote this piece not because I didn’t love having babies and toddlers swarming around for years and years, but because I loved  it so much that I was always paralyzed with terror about it ending. “Just you wait,” people have been saying doomfully to me for years. So I wanted to say it to you: just you wait. It gets even better. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2012)

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This entry was written by Catherine Newman

About the author: is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines , including Family Fun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. Read more at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Catherine Newman

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  • http://www.remainsofday.blogspot.com Andrea

    Laughing. Crying. Laughing. I love you, Catherine Newman!

  • Katie B

    I’m still in the toddler/preschool stage with my kids, so it’s a little hard to imagine, but I love reading this because it gives me hope.

  • http://www.abrownlow.com Alisa

    Thank you for this. And yes, I still get the newspaper delivered even though I never, ever read it. I’m stubborn and believe that someday I will get back to it.

    So lovely and so funny. While I’m still in baby/toddler years, what you wrote is what I secretly suspect, about it all.

  • Suzo

    Thank you for this. It is all so true. It was worth having a third kid so that I can relish each and every moment. Now people say to me, “Just wait until she turns 13.” But I know she will still be as wonderful. You inspire me with your writing and point of view and your humor.

  • Kira

    I’ve been reading you since you just had one sweet little baby and you helped me cope with the waves of chaos that I, too was surfing. Now you are helping me embrace our new stage as I still occasionally long for the “little kids, little problems” era. Can I look forward to you being my jungle guide when it comes to our empty nests and assisted living?

  • Katie

    No. It is not possible for someone to be so lodged in my head. I feel violated! You’ve noticed that I don’t even bother to take the paper out of its blue plastic bag anymore, haven’t you?! I’m also crying a little because the picture of the future that you conjure is too beautiful to even think about!! And I’m partway there! No middle of the night feedings around here anymore! But still, the idea that I might someday sleep as long as I want is truly unfathomable.

    Thank you THANK YOU for your final message. Every moment is bittersweet. Every single moment. I am constantly heartbroken at it all passing & have wild urges to have more & more & more babies. It helps to hear that it isn’t all loss from here on out.

    And I’m glad I know enough to cherish toddlers who insist on sharing a pillow. Worth every minute of lost sleep.

  • http://dawngeddeswritesblog.wordpress.com Dawn Geddes

    Thanks so much for this, very, very lovely.

  • http://pattyjansen.com/ Patty Jansen

    It gets better, until it gets worse.

    Until they are learner drivers and you sit next to them on a main road in the pouring rain (oh yeah, the car is a manual) and you realise you’ve never understood the meaning of FEAR. Because, OMG by the time he/she has a license, someone will be dead, and if it’s the cat, you’ll all be lucky.

    And they go out, but the trains stop running at midnight, so please let us know if you need to be picked up, but the phone doesn’t ring, and it’s already 2.30am and you’re fucking TIRED. You want to go to bed and you can’t even have a glass of wine, because, you know, driving to pick them up. At four you get an SMS “staying at a friend’s place”.

    Or they go to parties, and some stupid friend feeds them so much grog that they fall down the stairs and knock themselves out and end up in the hospital with all the other sad remains of teenage brawn. They’re too embarrassed to tell you, so they go home with a friend and then you get an irate phone call from some other parent about how bad a parent your are.

    Boyfriends. Nah, the potential for sex doesn’t worry me so much. I went to uni. We were thoroughly “educated” at 18 at the very latest, but some of these boys are not very nice. Demanding, possessive. Are the girls going home with these boys for “sleepover with a friend” when they can’t come back from going out after said trains have finished running.

    Going to the beach with some girlfriends, at least is a harmless activity (phew). But then there is a phone call: “Mummy, someone ran into the car at the car park.”

    On top of all that, they steal all your clothes.

  • Karen T.

    Oh Catherine…your writing just does me in every time….I’m exactly where you are….an 11 year old and a 7 year old. I miss the baby days but love these moments just as much. Thank you (as always) for your perspective and for writing what no one else does…

  • Joanna

    This is the best thing I’ve read all year. I think you might be secretly videotaping my life as I raise my 5yo, 3yo, and 1yo. I’m looking forward to it getting even better! Soon. Very, very soon.

  • http://www.littlelovestories.com Stephanie Willoughby

    This is (by far) my favorite read ever in the history of reads. I’ve read it over and over and wished it were a book…that I’d never get to finish in this period of my life, but would look forward to reading every night for two glorious sentences at a time. Two babies now, and I often wonder, will I miss them as babies? This will stay in my back pocket forever more. Thank you for this.

  • Laura

    I love this! You are so right. Someday, I tell my siblings with younger kids, you will give your kids walkie talkies on vacation and say yes when they ask, “can I go to Claire’s cabin?” and then you’ll turn the page in your book, instead of hunching over to push them around on a little trike or making them stop eating sidewalk chalk. Someday, you will get beaten regularly by your kids in actual fun board games that require strategy instead of cheating to let your kid win at Candyland (no you didn’t just draw the card that sends you all the way back to the beginning, that’s my card!). And so on! I loved my babies so much, but I’m enjoying my big girls more and more these days.