She is motion on two legs with drool, babbling, and a wicked smile. She is both wave and particle. She bounces from person to person like a pinball, leaving a trail of laughter and destruction. She is a little over one year old and named after an SUV.
Our house is full; fifteen or so of my wife’s cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends have come for Thanksgiving. They are my family, now, and are in my home, and this little girl squeals and laughs as she rips Kleenexes apart and scatters them on the floor like confetti, pulls DVDs from their cases and jumps up and down on them, chews the business end of a fireplace match and runs headlong towards the stairs for which there is no baby-gate, yet. Her mother, all of twenty years old and a young twenty, at that, is texting her new boyfriend on the couch, oblivious.
The little girl’s aunt and uncle who are both younger than the mother, sometimes catch her before she careens down the stairs or out the door, but they are equally intent on card games, eating or looking things up on their iPones. Another teenaged cousin who I haven’t seen in years takes over duties towards the end, and keeps the little girl from breaking her neck, though it's clear she and her own mom are less than thrilled that they are now the gate-keepers for a one-year-old ferral child.
My wife alternately tries to feed the kid the homemade food she's prepared especially for the littlest kids and tries to convince her cousin to put the little girl down for a nap in the pack'n'play set up away from the noise for that very purpose, but is unsuccessful on both counts, so she doesn’t eat more than a few bites of banana and a mouthful of applesauce in something like seven hours, and has no nap at all.
I’m watching my own seven month old, who is being passed around like a new toy. I try to keep an eye on the little girl, the living epitome of unchecked energy, but then someone catches her and I lose her, thinking she’s safe, until she breaks free again and I see her streaking toward the open back-door. All of us are watching her with one eye, but none of us is watching with both. My daughter starts to fuss, and as I move in to take advantage of this and whisk her away from the ruckus, I nearly collide with the little girl. She stops short with a smile and a dirty face, reaches for me, and, as she probably has to every male in the house, asks, “Daddy?”
Fifteen months ago, my wife and I nearly adopted that little girl. This was before my wife knew she was pregnant. Her then eighteen year old cousin was single, unemployed (though she might’ve had a part-time job if she'd wanted it), a college drop-out, and one of the most sheltered children I’ve ever met. I’m not being mean, here, simply honest. At eight months pregnant she’d been dumped by the child’s father, a significantly older guy in the military who’d rather spend his money on expensive toys and his time elsewhere, but who insisted on naming the kid after the SUV. My wife and I had been trying to have a kid for a few years, at that point, and were towards the end of a hail-mary attempt when my wife’s cousin called in distress over her situation.
She said that if she was going to give her baby up to anyone, it would be us, but she needed time to think about it. We felt something like Sartre’s characters in “The Wall,” waiting through the night for the firing squad. We talked it out between ourselves while we waited. We thought: here’s a kid who’s screwed up her life but could still make good. She could walk away and start over. Then again, raising a kid could be the best thing for her. It could be a crash-course in growing up, which she desperately needs. On the other hand, let’s be realistic: What does she know about the kind of hard work and sacrifices this would require? But what did we know about them either?
We tried to be logical. There was no way we could afford a kid just yet. I was training in a new position and, once I had that, gunning for a promotion, but I wouldn’t have it for another year. We had a plan, and that plan required our hail-mary to pay off, sure, but we didn’t expect to actually have a kid for another ten months or so. But here was opportunity tapping at our door. And we knew we could make it work, somehow.
When she called and said she’d decided to keep the baby after all, my wife waited until she got off the phone to break down. We both thought this might’ve been our last chance, but what could we do? It wasn’t our decision to make. We had to respect it and be supportive. We hoped for the best. We hoped she would take advantage of this opportunity, dig in, and do right by her soon-to-be child. When my wife found out she was pregnant a few weeks later, our course was set. But still, in the back of our minds, we wondered: what if?
While the family was in town for Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity to see several approaches to parenting. By far the most developed kid was a teenager, "Martin," whose single mother kept him in line (some would say nagged him constantly). But it was obvious this kid would have a future. It was obvious that his mother understood that the work of being a parent often means acting in opposition to your kid/s' wishes or natural inclinations. Kids test boundaries. It’s tiring to push back, but a lot of the time, you have to if you want the kids to develop positive habits. Another cousin, "Mandy," meanwhile, talked about sneaking out the night before and partying. Martin was sullen during this conversation, feeling left out. He didn’t understand how much his mother was doing for him by making sure he was left out, of course. Being a parent means being unpopular sometimes. Mandy's mother, on the other hand, didn’t even chastise her daughter for sneaking out to spend the night with her boyfriend. She simply grinned, apparently at the horrible joke that her other teenaged daughter was well on the way to having a baby of her own, just like her sister.
There is a lot of pain in this family, and it tends to manifest in self-absorption of one kind or another, which, of course, could be said of most of us. What that means in real life is some non-engaged parents. If I were unkind, I could say that some of these folks were too busy looking for their own gratification and ended up ignoring their children. This is the greatest fear I have about my own parenting. But perhaps that’s the difference; being aware of this means I can be proactive in preventing it. I don’t mean to sound conceited or arrogant. I’m not perfect; far from it. I’m deeply flawed. And if it wasn’t for my wife, I would be much more so. One of the first things I did when my wife became pregnant was start to see a psychologist. This wasn’t because I was depressed about having a kid; it was because I had a ton of issues and I didn’t want to screw my kid up. I didn’t have good models for parenting because of various circumstances, so I look around at other people, and I try my best to figure out what works. And seeing how these folks acted towards their kids, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
I may well still screw up royally. But I hope I don’t, and I plan to do everything in my power to keep from it.
After everyone left, my wife and I talked about the little girl and everything else I’ve been writing about. “They’re good people,” my wife said. And it’s true, I’m sure. The teenaged mother isn’t actively bad; she’s just a kid who happens to have a kid and is completely unprepared for it. Her mother is freshly divorced and trying to have some fun. Everyone has their own hell, and it’s easy to judge when you haven’t lived with the fumes. We’re too close to the situation to have any real perspective, and I’m sure we exaggerate what we don’t see and take what we do see for the worst. But seeing that little girl running wild while her mother ignored her and her immediate family only stepped in when she became a nuisance, we couldn’t help but wish that her mother had said yes, all those months ago. But there’s not much we can do about it. There’s always going to be horror outside the door. There’s nothing to be done about that. What’s inside the house, that you can affect.