99 Problems

Published on February 10th, 2017 | by Sara Petersen


Sara Petersen has SUCH A SERIOUS BABY

As I squeeze myself between the grocery cart and the checkout counter, attempting to reach the last pouch of pureed mango, spinach, and pear, Wren waves frenetically towards anyone within view and grins. The woman scanning my organic milk, my whole wheat bread, and my six-pack of whichever IPA has the highest alcohol percentage, says, “Well, hello! What a happy baby!” I smile, complimented by the woman’s benediction, happy to agree with her, that yes, Wren is a happy baby. I leave the store full of smug satisfaction, because I’m the happy baby’s mother, so clearly I must be doing something right.

Wren is my second child. She has been easy since day one. A few hours before she was born, I watched Giada at Home with my dad, perched gingerly on my leather couch, snacking on goldfish crackers, standing up occasionally to breathe into deep contractions. Once we got to the hospital, Wren plunged into life with such exuberance that the midwife told me to ease up on one of my last pushes so she’d be able to catch her.

Charlie is my first child. As a baby, he frustrated the grocery store women. Perched in the grocery cart seat, or nestled in his infant carseat, he surveyed the world warily, his wide eyes always watching, always observing. “Hello there!” the women would croon, “Look at those big brown eyes!” And when their repertoire of squeals and high-pitched voices failed to induce a smile or giggle or baby coo, they always said the same thing, “What a serious baby!” shooting me looks of almost remonstrative wonder.

I always laughed in return, their words planting seeds of doubt and impotent anger into my gut, their words rankling for the rest of the day, because I could only agree with them, that yes, he was a serious baby, and as was made clear to me over and over again, happy is good, and serious is bad.

There are photos of me as a 5th grader in which I’m curled up in the corner of a couch, wearing a blazer, penny loafers, and wire-rimmed glasses. I’m frowning into my copy of Anne of Green Gables and you better believe I was serious about Gilbert Blythe. I was serious about flora and fauna, and as a kid on the beach, I paroled tide pools, exhorting other children to release their hermit crabs and minnows from plastic buckets so they could rejoin their families in the sea. When my mother uprooted invasive violets from garden borders, I’d collect them and covertly plant them elsewhere. The thought of their vulnerable roots drying out in the sun made my heart hurt. I was serious about external acceptance and validation, and when I was rejected from my dream school, I shrieked that I would “never go to college because I was too stupid!” as my mother rubbed my heaving back between sobs. I was so serious about loving my college boyfriend that I ended up on my therapist’s couch at 22 years old, wailing about the fact that I was certain to die alone. I am very serious about avoiding small-talk at parties in favor of a solitary drink in the corner.

Wren is almost two now, and Charlie is almost four. Wren dances like nobody’s watching, the personification of a badly antiqued sign hanging in a seaside rental cottage that says, “live, laugh, love.” She alters the tone of her voice to make us laugh, saying hi! like a coloratura hummingbird, and HI like a chain-smoking grizzly bear. She is a goofball. I have to hold myself back from squeezing her too fiercely, restrain myself from taking a bite of all her juicy joy.

I spent a tortured twenty minutes last week trying to explain to Charlie that Paddy (our nine-year-old Norwich terrier) was truly contented living with us, and that he had chosen to leave his mother on his own volition, and that his mother was happy with her own human family. Even after promises that we’d write Paddy’s mother letters and invite her to come visit, Charlie was heartbroken that Paddy and his mother no longer lived under the same roof. He sat in depths of existential despair.

While ripping thorny saplings out of the earth, trying to keep them away from my tender sweet pea sprouts, Charlie told me to stop, his voice dripping with indignation. “Stop mama! Those baby trees need to grow big and tall!”

Here’s the thing. Wren is more than a smiling simpleton and Charlie is more than a grim little worrywart. They are dynamic, fully dimensional human beings; they are not stock characters.

Wren furrows her brow with angry determination when trying to put her own shirt onto her baby doll, and growls when I try to help. She is serious about buckling the chest strap on her car seat all by herself. She is serious about the need to let our dog out immediately-on-the-double when he barks. And she is very serious about cheese.

When a yellow tulip opens its petals overnight, Charlie runs to me, his eyes all sparkly. “Look, mum! A new yellow tulip is growing next to the red one! And it has different colored pollen! I’m gonna smell it and see if it smells the same!” He is happy in his wonder.

As the women in the grocery store lean towards my two children, I understand their need. As adults, we all want to suck in that untroubled joy for ourselves, to taste it, to numb our own anxieties and burdens and grownup worries with a shot of intoxicating glee.

And when Wren performs the way they want her to, she is also just being herself, the only thing she can ever be. And when Charlie lurks behind me, burying his face in my pants after their repeated attempts to engage him in conversation (“And how old are you?”), I don’t blame him for feeling such distaste for the social performance. I don’t blame him for croaking out unwillingly, “Hi,” his face all scrunched up with effort. “Well, hello!” the grocery store ladies laugh, amused at the four-year-old misanthrope. I squeeze him hard as we leave the store, loving that he is himself, the only thing he can ever be.

I can’t wait to drink with him in a corner some day, alone together at the party, complaining about the bad hors devours.

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About the Author

Sara lives in Portsmouth, NH, where she writes about parenthood, feminism, pop culture, and other miscellany. Her work has been published in  CatapultBrain, ChildEntropy, BustNeutrons ProtonsMotherwell, and elsewhere. She blogs about kids, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and friendship here.

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