As a young girl, I would watch with a combination of bemused longing and disgust as my sister and her friends planned their future weddings, decorated imaginary living rooms and named the many children they planned on having. I had no interest in debating the merits of bridesmaid dresses, less in slipcovers and really, if pressed, would have had to admit that, well, I didn’t actually like kids very much.
Naturally, this small detail didn’t stop me from babysitting for a little extra cash. You might think that, given my Scrooge-like distaste for young children, I might not have been in high demand as a babysitter, but you would be wrong (I’m sure for the very first time). In fact, I was very popular with my charges. Just like Mary Poppins, only for all the wrong reasons. It turned out that my tendency to find them less than charming was trumped by my utter disregard for parental rules and standards. With me in charge, the kids could pretty much eat what they wanted, watch what they wanted and go to bed when they wanted, just so long as they left me alone and didn’t ask me to, you know, actually take care of them. They loved me for it. Really.
And while I did feel a late-seventies-feminism-inspired superiority toward my sister and her wedding obsessed friends, I have to admit that I was just a tiny bit worried that I would, when the time came, be as lousy a mother as I was a babysitter. I mean what would happen if I felt toward my own children the same way I felt toward other people’s children?
Luckily for all concerned, I liked my own progeny from the minute they came out. But the simple fact of having children did not immediately soften my genetically hardened heart much toward other people’s children. Of course, I’d pay lip service to the intense level of their cuteness, I’d feign interest when their parents insisted on telling me their latest exploits and achievements, but truth be told, which of course it was not, I could always take ‘em or leave ‘em.
I first noticed my own change of heart over the winter break, when I found myself truly thrilled to see all of Oldest’s high school crew gathered in our garage again, playing pool and video games. Bliss. I looked into my formerly cold heart and realized that, now that they are all away at college, I not only miss my adored Oldest, but the rest of them as well. It may be that, once in place, the habits of mothering – the worrying, fetching, snack organizing, cheering, salving, and watching – obey Newton’s First Law of Motion. My heart had been set in motion.
So this weekend, I took Middle and his friend, A, to race in the Long Beach Erg Sprints. A is the kind of girl who really, really works hard. In fact, she worked so hard in her race that, when it was over, she was the last person sitting on an erg. She had to be helped off the machine and staggered outside, an arm flung over the helpful shoulder of her coxswain. When I followed her outside and saw her lying on her back on the sidewalk, I was a little worried. She looked so utterly and completely spent that I wondered if a quick trip to the ER might be in order.
I went over to her. She could barely open her eyes, but a small smile curved her lips when I congratulated her and said, “Your Mom and Dad would be so proud of you,” And thinking about how much heart she had shown in the race, and how proud her parents would indeed have been, my eyes started to well with tears. I was proud of her – and she wasn’t even mine.
Clocking in at 72 beats per minute, the human heart is nothing less than an amazing and expanding universe.