I was reading Amalah's blog and she linked to one of her previous postings about the time her husband left their baby in his car seat (for a very short time...really, when he walked in the restaurant he instantly remembered he'd forgotten something) and it reminded me of my incompetencies as a young mother. Now I'm an average-aged grandmother and because my kids are loads smarter than I ever pretended to be and chose not to drop out of college and have a baby, they probably won't commit nearly as many "call child protective services NOW" offenses as their Ma. Anyway, between Miss A's blog and an online article that I read in the Washington Post about a father who had left his baby securely strapped in his carseat at a Kiss 'n Park lot somewhere in the Washington suburbs, I couldn't help but think of my FAR more scary lapse of attentive parenting.
Memory tells me that London, in May and June of 1969, was beautifully warm and sunny. Chances are that if I searched the Internet to discover temperature and hours of sunshine at that exact time, I would find that these few weeks were no sunnier or warmer than usual. But I had a new baby, and although I was not yet 21 or perhaps because I was that young, my meteorological memories are somewhat clouded.
I didn’t read Dr. Spock with my first baby, not initially anyway. I have no idea why, but I suspect it was because it wasn’t on a college reading list and besides, wasn’t he an anti-war activist first and foremost? You mean he was a pediatrician, too? I didn’t know of projectile vomiting or diaper rashes or inconsolable tears. I didn’t know the routine of pregnancy or motherhood and I certainly didn’t know enough to feel fear. This baby thing came as a surprise, to me and my parents (not to mention the future husband/ dad-to-be). I am an only child; obviously an only daughter and as such I have one piece of advice for children who are solitary, especially daughters…get married before you get pregnant or finish college before you get pregnant or acquire a few more years before you make the decision to parent, whether you're going it alone or as a couple. It goes over better. Honest, it does. Trust me on this one.In my defense, I would like to impress upon my readers, gentle and otherwise, that birth control was a more lopsided affair in the late 60s. However hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get it right. Four and a half years later, after the birth of our second child, our son, I found out why. Turns out I double-ovulate. In the nascent days of birth control pills, double ovulation evidently threw a wrench in the efficacy of the whole thing. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. I do know that the initial shock of the pregnancy was somewhat overshadowed by my absolute excitement at moving to London and living with Roger. The practicalities would present themselves later and, until that time, I just would just get on with the business of life.
So we married, and I’m sure that within hours of the wedding he was wondering what had happened to that cute, sexy blonde. In her place was a quite different young woman. One who was green with nausea, puffy-eyed from crying and acting sort of shell-shocked. He discovered that his bride knew nothing of cooking and even less of cleaning. In a word I was impractical and not all that interested in learning. Those first few months were a lesson in survival and compromise. We struggled, sometimes blissfully happy and more often wondering what the hell was going on. Those early days of marriage were kind of like an experiment in living, while the true purpose of our marriage had yet to make herself known.
I guess I was somewhat surprised when after almost nine months of on again/off again nausea, I actually had a real baby…a girl…Jane. A strikingly beautiful baby (I know, I know, but I think she really was quite special). Jane made our family three, but it felt more like seven. It wasn’t her fault. She was small, but god she took up a lot of space. And even in those days when babies weren’t given a dozen of everything in every variation on the color wheel, they still garnered their fair share of stuff. To begin with, we really thought she’d be fine in the car carry cot for a long time. It was a sort of a mini traveling bed that you could sling on wheels and voila, a pram, or bring in the house, and voila, a bed. And initially she was. Problem was, we had no stand for this mini-bed and so at times it sat on the carpet in the living room or on our bed or on top of our chest of drawers but then, after I saw a nasty, city mouse squeezing out of the gas outlet hole of our ancient stove (just as I was beginning to light it), I decided that my baby needed to be somewhere mouseproof. The only such spot in our flat was the claw-footed bathtub. And so, that’s where I’d put the carry cot every night when we went to bed. I’d also stuff a washcloth in the drain, just in case an athletic rodent decided to climb in my baby’s bed!
So, even though I was completely freaked by her scabby navel, and didn’t really have a clue how to parent, I did know that I had to send out some birth announcements. After all, I wasn’t dragged up, I was raised. I dutifully filled in the blanks…name, date of birth, weight, length (like people are interested in anything more than the name I can remember thinking), licked and stuck the envelope flaps and began the task of bending Jane’s limbs into an outfit appropriate for mailing such important missives. Off we went to the Finchley High Road Main Post Office, London.
The Finchley High Road is a wide, old road; at least three lanes in each direction and always busy with traffic, no matter what time the day or night. The day I mailed the announcements was no different. The sidewalk in front of this busy city post office was lined with unattended prams and pushchairs into which were tucked sleeping and wailing infants and it was there that I parked tiny, new Jane in the midst of this baby traffic jam and skipped into the post office to buy the stamps. Today I am filled with amazement that it never occurred to me that she might have been stolen or squashed flat by a run-away truck. In some ways, parenting when you’re young and dumb is infinitely easier than tackling the task later in life.
I dropped the dutifully filled-in-the-blank announcements into the mailbox and started my walk home. I was struck by the beauty of the day. I can still remember the fragrance of the spring flowers, the softness of the air, and the warmth of the sun. I was in love with life and felt free, as free as most 20-year olds take for granted. I took my time walking home, feeling no need to hurry…nothing pressing.
Fumbling with my bag, I found the house key and pushed open the door to 100 Dynham Road, West Hampstead, London. Mrs. Gee, who lived on the ground floor and had done so since 1929, greeted me with a Cockney, “Eeyah, where’s the bybee?” “BABY,” I screamed, realizing for the first time since I’d left the post office with that wonderful sense of freedom, that I’d left my very own newborn baby behind. It wasn’t until years later that I understood, with a thud…That’s Why I Felt Free! I’d walked a mile and a half, through spring-leafy London lanes, intoxicated with freedom.
I charged up the stairs to our flat, taking two at a time, to telephone the post office. Screaming into the receiver, hysteria clouding every word, I somehow conveyed the fact that I’d forgotten my baby, and left her quite all alone on a busy high street and begged them to please, please, please take her to the relative safety of the indoors. They asked for make of pram and description of dress, and sounded remarkably calm. I had no memory of what I’d dressed her in, and just a vague idea that I’d read Silver Cross on the side of the pram. I knew it was navy blue. In the late 60s, apparently, babies weren’t in high demand, and she was exactly where I’d left her. They answered me, somewhat tersely, that no, she wouldn’t be in Lost and Found, but rather in the Sorting Office. By this time I could hear her screaming in the background, at least I assumed it was she, and lactation kicked in. Dress front drenched, I charged out the door and ran/walked the mile and a half back to the Finchley High Road. We had no car at this point and it never occurred to me to call a taxi.
Bursting into the post office, half-crazed with guilt but even more crazed with anxiety, they pointed me towards the back. In a huge hall, noisy with machinery and several dozen post office sorters, a piercing loud cry rang through the hall. “My baby,” I screamed. Accusing eyes bore through me. I could read their thoughts as clearly as if cartoon word bubbles were suspended above their heads…”Stupid cow…too young to have a baby…crazy American…what was she thinking.” Grabbing the pram, jumbled words of thanks poured from my lips as I lifted my sodden, hungry daughter from her pram. I do believe that was the very first moment I felt that burning, ever-present adjunct to mothering…worry. It’s never left me and anyone else who has mothered a child knows of what I speak. It’s not an advertised emotion, and not one the baby books warn you about but beware, along with the love and joy one's children bring, it’s very, very real, and very, very permanent.