I almost missed my daughter’s first summer. I mean, I was with her — as in, at home together — but somehow in my cloak of attentiveness, preoccupied with feedings and changings, tummy time and well-child charts, I failed to notice summer.
I orbited around her as a planet does the sun, perfunctorily providing all the necessary elements to ensure her timely development. I planned our days in increments of fluid-ounce intake and sleep solstices. I plotted our weeks in growth-curves and projected progress-revolutions.
My self-esteem hinged upon how my daughter’s advancement compared with the illustrated babies depicted in The Books, several of which I consulted daily. I read about sensory-stimulation, sensitive learning periods, invisible sunburns (when UVA rays damage the skin at a cellular level that remains undetectable until decades later where it appears as deadly melanoma), and mosquito-borne viruses.
I made shape-mazes and texture-tunnels to trigger the appropriate cognitive areas in her developing brain. I shunned toxic sunscreen (equally bad as melanoma) and lethal bug spray. I shaded the windows in her bedroom to block out the bright sunlight, which The Books said interfered with circadian cycles. I kept our house buttoned up against particulate pollutants, setting the thermostat at the recommended 75 degrees, regardless of the outside temperature (or air-conditioning bill).
By early July, I was burned-out, anxious, and exhausted from straining against the rhythm of the natural world. My daughter gained, grew, and moved as predicted, but barely napped and seemed restless. I longed for a reprieve but worried any lapse in assiduousness would result in her not reaching her full potential. My mind played a nervous thought loop: Babies are impressionable and malleable and dependent and my daughter needs me. I must be on guard to protect her, nurture her, show her. I must be everything, know everything, control everything…
“Relax,” said my mother when I asked her advice. “Enjoy your summer.”
“Summer? Really?!” I balked. “I have a baby!”
“The two are not mutually exclusive,” she said. “Enjoy summer with her.”
Tired of the nagging fear of inadequacy that The Books gave me and desperate to silence the voice saying, you should be doing more, you giant failure, I took my mom’s advice and, with my daughter in tow, stepped barefoot into summer.
* * *
The air outside surrounds us, sweet and heavy, and my daughter breathes a thick sigh. We venture down to the pond by our house, escorted by a cadence of crickets and frogs hidden in the feathery reeds. We crouch amidst these noisemakers, my daughter’s eyes wide, her head cocked, listening. We brush our hands over the tops of the dry grass. Gone to seed, it feels at once sharp and soft.
The pond entices my daughter with its filmy stillness, a dark reflection of her and me, until she splashes through the wet surface and chortles in surprise. I hold her baby hands, wadded in concentration, as she dips a curved foot into the pond’s mucky bottom. She reaches for the dripping mud, wanting to feel its slow fluidity with her mouth — more sensory stimulation than she’s ever encountered inside our stuffy, climate-controlled house.
By the time we head in, we’re both flushed and sweaty. My daughter is nearly asleep in my arms and I am calm and utterly refreshed. I lay her down on the end of the couch instead of the sleep-sanctioned bed, confident she’ll nap, and I set out to do what I had decided at the pond.
Room to room I go, collecting The Books from my various reading stashes. Then, my arms laden with pages of doubt, chapters of worry, and volumes of second-guessing, I take the stack of books out to the garage and dump them in the garbage.
Back inside, the house is oppressive and quiet, so I open all the windows and air out my soul.