Shivering under a blanket, knowing the only bathroom nearby was a Porta Potty, armed with extra tissues and plenty of hand sanitizer, I cheered when my daughter’s team made a goal and groaned when they didn’t. I prayed to the soccer gods that my child — who’d chosen this rough sport rather than the ballet I’d envisioned for her — would not need to visit the ER after this game. Or the next. Once, she sprained her ankle and her friend hoisted her onto her back, carrying her to my car in the parking lot. We ended up in the ER that time.
A decade later, I miss the inclement weather, last place team standings, smelly socks and teaching my daughter to use crutches the way I’d once guided her by her tiny hand for her first steps. When I pass our neighborhood playground, noticing bored looks on parents’ faces, I want to tell them: Enjoy it now. You’ll miss it later.
Why would they listen to me? I didn’t believe it when parents of older children warned, “Childhood will pass in a blink.” They repeated this dire prediction for high school, then college, assuring me it flew by even faster. If I bemoaned that my daughter’s fourth-grade math homework was beyond my comprehension, they’d respond, “Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems.”
Longing to Return to Little Problems
At the time, everything seemed Big. Juggling work deadlines when the babysitter didn’t show up; rushing to school pick-up despite my tight schedule. My husband traveled on business, so I took my daughter to the pediatrician for every fever, congestion and cough and for the stitches in the chin on a holiday weekend when all the doctors were away.
In the moment, parenting can feel tedious, even a burden. All those hours reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom over and over. “Again, Mama!” she begged, while I stifled a yawn. Recently, I read an article about George and Martha, two hippos we’d both adored in books by James Marshall. The reviewer compared these picture books to Henry James. I dug out the ones I’d saved, pages curled at the edges. I was pleased I’d introduced Martha to my daughter, a clever and feisty female role model.
She makes a goal, but I cheer silently. I try to be the invisible mom, reliving her childhood that passed in a few blinks.
I buy children’s books, rather than onesies, whenever a new baby is born. Sometimes I read them to myself before wrapping them. I miss George and Martha. I miss toothbrushing patrol; negotiating for the end of bath time. Even taming temper tantrums. Even the pediatrician, who never treated me like the inexperienced mother I was.
I find myself longing to return to little problems, seemingly simpler times. During a recent cleaning purge, I couldn’t bear to throw away the yellow rubber ducks my daughter played with in the tub. They remain perched on a bathroom shelf, like a shrine.
I blinked, and her childhood is gone. Sort of.
She Still Seeks My Advice. Sometimes.
We reached the “bigger problems” stage. Fierce friendship fights. Inconsiderate college roommates. Applying for internships. Not getting internships. Will she experiment with drugs? What to major in? What career path to choose? What if no one recognizes her talents? Does she even have talents?
Of course, she does. I cheered her on during soccer games, convinced she was the next Abby Wambach, an Olympic gold medalist. But eventually, nobody gets medals for just showing up in colorful jerseys.
At times, she seems to want to bury her childhood. She peruses kindergarten photos and says, “Why did you dress me so weird?” Scowling at pictures of braces and first eyeglasses, she can barely look at those awkward stages; they can’t be erased from her past the way a Snapchat disappears in 24 hours.
But when she notices the George and Martha series I’ve left on the coffee table, she jokingly asks if I’m going to read aloud to her. When I do, she softens and says, “I remember that!” and “Why doesn’t Martha ever wear a shirt?” We enjoy a long giggle together.
She still seeks my advice. Sometimes. And sometimes even listens.
When my daughter thinks she has carpal tunnel from computer overuse at work, I recommend a hand specialist she saw after a high school sports injury. I ask if she wants me to come, but she reminds me, “I’m old enough to go by myself now.”
Missing the Childhood I Wanted
Many years ago, in a rare moment of intimacy, my mother said to me, “You’ll always be my baby.” I recoiled, angry that she treated me like a baby, not allowing me to make my own decisions.
I rebelled against her strict rules and punishments. She wasn’t there when I needed her; she escaped to museums, trying to escape her past. She never recovered from spending her childhood in an orphanage, when her widowed immigrant Russian mother was too poor to care for her. “No one ever taught me how to be a mother,” she confessed in later years. I learned to forgive her unexplainable explosions, but still resent that she didn’t show up to cheer me on at swim meets.
I wasn’t only missing my daughter’s childhood. I was missing the childhood I wanted, but never had, with my own mother.
‘Get Home Safely, Mom’
My daughter joins an adult soccer league. They play on Thursday evenings, after work. Months pass before she invites me to a game.
“Are you sure?” I keep asking. I don’t want to embarrass her by being the only mother at the game, even though she wasn’t the type of teenager humiliated by her mother for just existing.
I arrive at the field at 9 p.m., a time I’m usually eager to change into PJs and watch TV. Shyly standing in a far corner, I feel like the mom who followed my daughter to school when she was first allowed to navigate on her own. I’d walk across the street, half a block behind, out of sight so I wouldn’t be obvious, yet keeping her in my view.
She makes a goal, but I cheer silently. I try to be the invisible mom, reliving her childhood that passed in a few blinks. I am uncomfortably cold and the Porta Potty is vile. I don’t buy hot chocolate for the team as I did when she was in middle school. I savor the hour-long game the way I once tried to hold onto the feeling of swooping up my young daughter, acutely aware that soon enough she’d be too heavy to lift.
I pat her on the back afterwards, but only after her team has dispersed. Instinctively, I want to ask her to text me when she reaches her apartment and bolts the door closed, but I resist.
Surprisingly, she says, “Get home safely, Mom.”
“I will,” I promise, lingering to watch her cleats stride confidently in the other direction.
Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City.
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