For the last eight months, I’ve been working on a book called Laughing at the Dark. It’s a memoir of sorts, stories from my life and some thoughts that go with them. It’s not ready for publication yet (hopefully you’ll see it sometime next fall) but this chapter that I wrote months before a pandemic confined us all to our homes just keeps sticking in my head. Some of us may still feel physically safe, for others our fears are for parents or for compromised family members or for ourselves, for still others our anxieties center around the emotional and the economic impacts as we face real consequences. But never in my lifetime has it been so obvious that we are all ultimately vulnerable and not nearly as powerful as we’d like to think. So hopefully this little excerpt can be a small moment of laughter and a reminder that you aren’t alone. Here’s to accepting together whatever comes and to doing the next thing and then the next.
When you are blessed to have a contented baby who also happens to be your third child, the little darling will spend a lot of time on the floor. (At least, I like to assume I’m not the only one.)
Lucy was born right at the beginning of the current baby-wearing trend, and since we lived in another country and were at least ten years behind all trends, I didn’t have any nifty slings or wraps. I had one very uncomfortable “baby backpack” that contrasted starkly with the many cute baby blankets that could be tossed on the floor for Lucy to roll around on.
And she was just so happy to lay there and look at the world go by.
There were always things to watch. A whirlwind of a big sister. A snugly big brother. A puppy exactly six months older than she was and very interested in dashing about licking things. Guests in and out. Noise and action in the neighborhood. More than enough stimulation for one introverted baby.
When Lucy learned to crawl, she was right there on the floor to have all the room she needed to do so. She explored our tiny house right next to the pup, slowly going after the things she had formerly just observed. She wasn’t particularly adventurous, but at home where she was familiar with everything in sight, she owned her world.
Which is how she began the habit of sticking her fingers in every crack and crevice to see what was hidden there. The door frames and window wells. The space under the couch. Behind the TV.
I think that last one is where she found the dead cockroach.
But then, does it matter where she found it? What matters is that I walked into the room to see my sweet little baby girl on the verge of putting a dead roach into her sweet little baby mouth.
I have never moved so fast in my life. I have never touched a roach so willingly, either. But I’m proud to say that I stopped her just in time.
Then I washed her hands and my hands and swept under and behind every piece of furniture in the house. I only wished there was some way to wash the memory from my brain.
If you’ve ever worried about the germs your child is exposed to or felt guilty about not keeping your house as clean as you should, congratulations. You now know that you are not doing as badly as you could be.
In all seriousness, though, while I still cringe when I think about that day, it’s only a drop in the bucket of dirt and germs that my kids encountered daily. During their early years, we lived in neighborhoods on the edges of those temporary shanty-towns you see on the news. Ellie wore the sweet little dresses her grandparents bought her to play on the cement floors and packed dirt yards of her neighborhood friends. We took walks next to the open drainage ditches that lined our streets, and when the rain made drainage back up into our house, the water smelled of sewage. Sometimes we’d be without water for hours or even days at a time, which meant no bathing or, you know, flushing toilets. Yes, that is as bad as it sounds.
I don’t say any of that to evoke pity or scorn or admiration or any particular response. It was just a fact of life where we lived, as it is for millions of people around the world. We did what everyone does: the best we could. I tried to keep my kids away from the open sewers and mostly succeeded. If I failed, I gave them a bath. I bathed them regularly, even though it was usually in a Rubbermaid tub. I made them eat their vegetables and drink their milk, and when we got food poisoning from the choripan we bought on the side of the road, we drank a lot of Gatorade and got through it.
Once, our teammates rescued a tiny kitten from a nearby field. Our kids all loved that cat. They played with it. They snuggled it. We didn’t discover that it had ringworm until all three families on our team were infected. I spent the weeks before Lucy was born spreading cream over everyone in an attempt to get the red splotches totally healed before we had an infant in the house. It almost worked. The tiny spot on my right arm didn’t disappear quite enough, and while nursing Lucy, I transferred the fungus to her sweet newborn head. I know, right? But in the end, we went back to the pharmacy, got more cream, and a few weeks later, she was healed.
Every time something like that happened, I felt all the sickening feelings of disgust and shame that you might imagine. I don’t think anyone is so laid-back that they get to escape the disgust and shame. But whatever we might feel, we parents are the ones in charge of dealing with the mess. So we do the next thing. And then the next. And then the next.
As far as I can tell, that’s really all there is to adulting. It’s not knowing what you’re doing. It’s not being prepared or having a plan. It’s figuring out the next step and then doing it, even when you feel like crawling into a hole and giving up.
For what it’s worth, these days my kids are all healthy.
I could try to take credit for that. I could say that it was because I exposed them to so many germs that they have strong immune systems. Or that it was because I brought them home to a cleaner environment partway through their lives that we avoided the worst dangers. But I don’t think either thing is true.
I know kids who lived in those slums who had asthma from the pollution and chronic health issues from malnutrition. I also know kids in the same exact households who licked ashes off of rusty nails when their parents weren’t looking and grew up as strong and healthy as the proverbial horses. I know kids in middle-class America who have life-threatening allergies and others who have almost died from complications of the flu. I also know some who can run three miles without breaking a sweat and scarcely ever have so much as a cold.
It turns out that the human body, like everything else in life, is incredibly complex. Its health is affected by such an intricate mix of genetics and environment and random chance that we would be arrogant to take too much credit when it goes well and foolish to take too much blame when it doesn’t.
I’m not saying I don’t need to make healthy choices when I can or that it makes no difference what I do. Some parts of our life and health do lie within our control, and I certainly want to tip the odds in my favor if I can. I’m just suggesting that so much of my kids’ well-being is not up to me. Some things I can’t change and some things I can’t predict, and when I start to believe I can, I’m setting myself up for serious anxiety. I’m also setting myself up to judge others in the most unproductive way.
It doesn’t sound particularly high-minded, but in a fractured world, our physical vulnerability is one of the few things that we all truly have in common. However different our values, our customs, and our beliefs about the world, we all live in fragile bodies and navigate a world over which we don’t have nearly as much control as we’d like.
You and I and the moms in rural Ghana and the moms in the slums of St. Petersburg and the moms in ritzy Fifth Avenue apartments all have children whose arms break when they fall, whose bodies are susceptible to viruses, and whose hair makes a welcome home to lice. We most certainly don’t all have the same access to prevention and treatment of those things, but we all have to deal with them when they happen.
If we could learn to accept our mutual weakness, I believe we’d find it easier to give each other more grace, and give ourselves more grace, too. Our frailty is a place where we can meet with compassion. Our bodily pain is a reality we can feel with true empathy. Our gross physicality is a thing we can laugh about together.
And in that place of vulnerability, we can help each other find the strength to do the next thing.
And the next.
And the next.