I remember when Zoe was about three, we went to a barbeque hosted by the family of one of her preschool classmates. Many preschool families were there. I remember watching the younger sibling of one of Zoe’s classmates wander around the courtyard where we were gathered. I’m not sure how old she was, but I’m guessing between 12 and 18 months. She was toddling around reaching her hand into whatever snacks she could find, and investigating anything she cared to investigate, and generally being a healthily curious little girl. And I kept thinking, “why isn’t anyone watching her?” Besides me, of course.
And now I get it.
As the parent of a first grader and a nine-month-old, I just don’t watch my baby every second. I know where he is. I generally know what he’s doing. But he’s a lot to keep up with, and I have to interact with my big kid, and I have to put in another load of laundry, and run the dishwasher, and feed people. And I have a good idea of what he’s up to and can hear him and tell what particular toys he’s playing with or messes he’s making. But I acknowledge that the constant vigilance of the first-time parent is gone. I am not careless or unconcerned. I am also not as panicky or inclined to hover.
One result of this, unintended, is that my first grader has taken on some of the vigilance herself. She is constantly chasing after her brother and dragging him back to where he was 30 seconds earlier. She says “NO, ZEKE!” often. I remind her, sometimes, to reserve the loud no for important things like cords and electricity and imminent danger, and not just for “don’t crawl off the rug where we were playing” or “don’t grab the baby wipes.” I have had to say to Zoe a few times, when she says “will you watch him?” that I am his mother and I am taking care of him and I will not let him get hurt. When he tries to climb the stairs (which he’s done now three times) I always walk right behind him with my hands out to catch him before he plummets to the bottom. When he crawls into the bathroom I retrieve him before he plunges himself or anything else into the toilet. But if he crawls behind the couch and tears up a newspaper ad, that is fine by me. I don’t shop at Macy’s anyway. Even when he makes a grab for the mustard when anyone opens the fridge, it’s not an emergency. What’s the worst that could happen? Spilled mustard, if he could even get the cap open. If he tasted the mustard I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like it and that would be the end of that.
Aside from the watchfulness standard, the cleanliness standard has pretty much flown out the window. I swear I do the dishes every day. The washer and dryer are running all the time. And yet piles of dishes and laundry materialize as if by magic. The recycling spills out of cardboard boxes from which diapers and toys and baby play yards have been born. But who cares. Those cardboard paper towel rolls and empty juice bottles make excellent toys for a baby to play with.