Tonight, I sat at the dinner table with a baby on my lap and his older brother to my left. As we ate our fish chowder (thanks, Magid! great recipe), I had one of those moments in which your perspective is replaced by a different one. With my altered eyes, I realized that I was being flanked by a small version of my mother-in-law and my uncle. (But which one?) I looked at the frizzing red hair, the high cheekbones under dark, straight hair, and felt suddenly as if I were playing hostess to my elders, rather than simply feeding my offspring. The weight of possibility pressed on me: who are these boys?
It is the fallacy of parenthood to try and predetermine their children, or at least to pretend that we know them. 'Oh, he's going to be an engineer,' we say as we watch little Tommy build blocks. 'Yes, he looks just like his father,' we enthuse, as if the resemblance to an adult gives us a pigeonhole for the child, or a way to define, even understand them. We try on these definitions, applying one concept after another, as if to hide from the reality that clothed in our child's skin is a person we haven't quite met yet.
Parents of a newborn are slightly less enamored of this illusion, though they might need it most. Not yet able to smile or communicate in much of anything short of wail/absence-of-wail, newborns are semi-alien creatures. A parent soldiers through the brutal sleep deprivation, the endless feedings, bouyed up by the pheromone-inspired love, an instinct for possession, affection, and the knowledge of better days ahead, when contentedness in the moment is lost. A toddler is more easily adapted to explanations: 'he's tired,' 'he has his mother's temper,' 'he has his father's ears,' 'it's a phase.' How often do we resist the urge to apply our facile interpretation of the child and to actually listen? I know that I regularly fail to do so, but that when I try, I am often surprised.
So there I sat, entertaining my elders, when my mother-in-law redux turned to me and said, 'I know a poem. Corn, pea, crust. Do you like my rhyme?' 'Oh, yes,' I lied happily, having rediscovered my little boy.
Coda: tonight's slippery vision might have been caused by this milestone: tonight we gave my four year old a dinner knife. He's tried using a plastic knife on two occasions, and I felt it was worth the experiment to give him proper cutlery. He dissected his cauliflower with tremendous enthusiasm, occasionally pausing to eat the fragments of his handiwork.