Can't Buy Me Love: Remembering The Lessons Of My First Child

by Maggie May Ethridge
Originally Published: 

My first son was born in my 19th year. I had almost nothing and wanted almost nothing. The things I longed for weren’t things at all; they were experiences, emotions, reactions. I devoted myself to healing from an emotionally traumatic youth, desiring more than anything not to pass my wounds onto my child. Of course, I did anyway, but the work I did in therapy and through reading and journaling turned what might have been a deeply troubled childhood for my son into one full of love and emotional security.

I would take my baby son out with a diaper and wipes tucked into my purse, maybe a onesie for a change. But my mom would laugh and say how much things had changed. “I couldn’t leave the house without a storage cart full of supplies,” she’d say. My youth freed me from the cluster of comparison; I had no friends with children. My son basked in the attention, being the sole child everywhere, at home and socially. I didn’t take a stroller out. I carried him in a sling or in my arms, and I breastfed, so no bottles, no formula.

Together, we went to the bookstore every week, parks, desert trips, dirt bike rallies, the beach. By 2 years old, he was one of the happiest, most observant and secure children on earth. “He’s so polite!” “He holds conversations like an older kid.” “He’s so mature.” “He’s such a good listener.” “He’s an old soul.” I heard all of those declarations from both friends and strangers, over and over again. I’d answer with just a nod and a smile. He’d happily play by himself for an hour while I wrote.

I worked as a nanny and then as a preschool teacher so that we could be together all day. I took college courses at night when my mom could care for him. He and I were together for 90 to 95 percent of those years. We co-slept, we cuddled, we did crazy dances. He had a small amount of toys. He had an even smaller wardrobe. I cut his hair and dressed him in used clothes and gave him used toys. Our big treat was Friday Night Family Night, when we’d order pizza and rent a movie from Blockbuster: one for him, one for me, a tradition we still continue today. We were perfectly connected and happy together. He hunted bugs, read and was read thousands of books, spent hours on end in Borders with me, gardened with his grandma in her backyard and was exposed to art, magnets, building, canyons and musicals. It was more than enough; it was abundant.

©Maggie May Ethridge

My youngest and fourth child is 4. She has benefits my oldest son never had. She was born into an intact marriage, a large, boisterous and loyal family, an even larger and even more boisterous extended family (Catholic! Irish!) and two parents with jobs. I was in my late 30s at her birth—more stable emotionally than I had ever been, more confident of myself, more integrated with the world around me. I am less anxious and high-strung than when my son was small. I definitely cry less.

The baby of the family has three older siblings to lean on and learn from and one older sister who dotes on her. She has a beautiful, eclectic array of toys–magnets, building blocks, dolls, dinosaur sticker books, musical instruments, Barbies, a million cars and a car track, a train set with tracks, baby dolls, baby doll clothes, carved wooden Montessori bowls, and tufted, brightly colored acorns to count and sort with. What she doesn’t have is what my son did: a Pollyanna world where either myself or Grandma or Great-Grandma or Grandpa (all three lived together during his childhood ) were there to quietly, eye to eye, interact for long periods of time. My youngest daughter hardly has a hard life and is not lacking attention. What she is lacking lately is focused, calm attention in long spans from me, her mother.

Although I do feel sad about this, I’m realistic. I know she’s loved beyond compare and feels safe in the large net of her family. I know she has benefits her brother didn’t have, emotionally and physically. I know that in keeping her home from preschool to be with me, I’ve given her plenty. And I know that in part, it has to be this way. I have to work from home, and I have three other children, a husband, a dog, a cat and a home to care for, not just a dinky apartment and one little person.

What I struggle with is the in part. Over the years, I have let the imprinted lessons of those early years with my son fall away underneath the relentless grind of modern life. Working, writing, a big family—those are beautiful gifts. But I am too distracted, I too easily lose focus, I spend too much time in my head when I want to be moving my energy directly toward this freckle -faced, two-colored-eyed girl child in front of me.

I need to remind myself that another toy, another busy activity, another trip are not the things my daughter needs. She needs her family. She needs me. She needs my attention. She needs a walk where I’m not hurried to get home and clean up, a playtime where I’m not quickly finishing up so I can return a phone call. She needs art play with me drawing and at peace next to her, not struggling to stay in the moment. She needs eye contact and a calm voice. She needs to feel that I am where I am, available to her, not perched in a half-life of anxious to-dos. Lately, I’ve been reminding myself over and over to be where I am—one of my favorite sayings. It’s the answer to most of life and certainly to much of parenting: Be present, all in. Leave the toys at home, grab the kid and face the world together, gadget-free.

I remember, and I learn again. It’s the time I focus on my kids that allows them to let me focus on something that’s not them.

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