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A Mother's Instinct

I'm beginning to understand that my actions and words can only take my growing kids so far. They need to be the ones to navigate their worlds which are becoming increasingly more their very own. I can't always be inside their heads, their worlds and their phones.
05/17/2016 03:51pm ET | Updated May 18, 2017
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Mother and baby girl napping on grass

I could feel my husband's gaze on me as the labor and delivery nurse laid our newborn soon on my naked chest only moments after he, our first child, was born. My husband wasn't fixated so much on this tiny stranger who we were instantly charged with caring for, but really he would later tell me, he was staring at me. He was amazed that I seemed so at ease and that I knew what do with the tiny stranger; that I held him so comfortably and was even talking to him in a soft voice, which my husband had never heard before.

I had never heard it before either, and if I could have somehow seen myself, I'm sure that I would have been staring at me. I knew nothing about babies. I had never changed a diaper, and I'm not sure I ever held a baby before that moment. I felt a bit like a baby myself back then -- nearly thirteen years ago, having become pregnant while still in graduate school feeling overwhelmed and also just a bit grateful that my graduation gown hid my growing belly as I walked onto the stage to receive my degree.

No one was more surprised than me that just a few months after that graduation night, when the nurse put that baby on my chest, that something -- that maternal instinct as I would later come to understand -- really did kick in and right away. Just as my son had left the inside of body, it seemed that someone else had entered my body and this person, this new me, knew how to care for this baby boy.

His doll like tiny fingers fit so naturally into mine, and I touched each one as I told him family stories that came to me from where I'm not sure. I told him about his namesake -- his great grandfather Joe who wore bow ties almost everyday and referred to most everyone he met as "my friend." I felt like I could talk to this kid all day long, and I did.

Baby Joe soon became known as the only human alive who not only tolerated my tone-deaf singing voice, but also seemed to really enjoy it. I played the role of both Carly Simon and James Taylor making up my own harmony to keep him entertained and forget about the chill on his naked bottom while I changed his diaper.

"Everybody have you heard. He's gonna but me a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don't sing, he's gonna buy me a diamond ring," I belted out as baby Joe cooed along.

When toddler Joe became frustrated with being a little kid in a grownup word, I knew how to turn his fits of pain into fits of laughter. It was as simple as putting my hands on my face, fingertips spread wide open and looking surprised a la Macaulay Culkin post aftershave Home Alone. It worked every time.

When his sister arrived a couple years later, my instincts seemed to work their magic on her too. She loved to be cuddled and swaddled, and I somehow figured out how to turn her light pink baby blanket, which had each letter of her name, REBECCA, embroidered in hot pink yarn into what looked like a soft and cozy straightjacket. She looked so content all wrapped up as she dozed in and out of her naps in her white bassinet with the yellow piping -- the same one her big brother Joe used to lay his head in.

Rebecca was not the champion marathon sleeper as was Joe. Still, I felt comforted during those multiple middle of the night feedings when I'd look down at her squished up face, observe her rhythmic breathing and recognize that I was able to give her what she needed -- food, warmth and yes that snuggle she always craved.

I remember feeling so accomplished on so many nights after the babies and later little kids were fed, bathed, pajama'd, read to, kissed and had fallen fast asleep in their cribs or beds upstairs.

"I kept them alive another day" I'd tell my husband with a smirk in my voice and he'd throw me a smile or give me a kiss. I think he knew what I meant. I certainly did.

It was that feeling of meeting my children's very basic needs in the best way I knew how that made me feel so satisfied. Of course some days were harder than others, and some days I was with them more than others as I worked out of my office a few days a week. But each night, no matter how long of a day it had been, I could put my head on my pillow, rest easy and fall fast asleep.

Perhaps sleep came so easily to me back then because I was so exhausted from meeting all of my children's, often very physical, needs? Perhaps it was more than that?

These days, that easy sleep eludes me. My nights don't come together so neatly nor do they end so easily. I'm usually driving my kids around to sports practices and other activities during those very same nighttime hours when they used to be fast asleep. After I get home from shuttling them around, there is homework to be finished, books of their own to read, questions to be answered (or maybe not answered) and always, it seems, the pull of their friends via text, Instagram, Xbox and more.

As much as I'd like to, I can't just say goodnight to the brush and to the mush and to my favorite -- the old lady whispering hush. It's hard to say goodnight to anything and anyone in the growing world my kids now inhabit.

They are still young enough that they tell me about what's going on in their worlds and sometimes mention the latest problems or concerns when I manage to drag them out of them. But I can no longer make it all go away by belting out an off key folk song or an imitation of a funny movie. In fact both of those responses would be and have been met with an eye roll and a "mom really?!"reaction.

I know all the clichés: little kids, little problems -- big kids, big problems and so too that the parenting work becomes less physical and more emotional as the kids grow up. I get that.

Someone once told me that having children is like wearing your heart on the outside every day. That makes sense to me, and that was just fine when the outside was the crib, the playroom or the sweet nursery school and early elementary school classrooms. But now that outside is so much more. It's a basketball court and playground full of kids with raging pre-adolescent hormones; it's hanging out at someone's house when I don't know who will be there and I'm not sure if an adult is in charge. And it's that big bad world out there that lives inside my children's phones, which seem to be glued to their hands more and more.

Someone also once told me that having your kids on the Internet is like letting them walk around in Times Square all alone in the middle of the night.

My instincts, the same ones that somehow came to me the night my son was born, are still there telling me exactly what to tell my kids: Don't ever say anything bad about anyone, especially in a text or on social media.

"If you don't want it printed on the front page of The New York Times, then don't put it out there. Even if it is just a stupid comment about a stupid picture that some friend posted on Instagram," I tell them.

I even show them the email that some friend of an acquaintance of a colleague once famously sent out to someone in their office, and then within the span of a few hours, the email made its way out on the whole big bad Internet until said person was fired and his life was seemingly ruined. My kids nod their heads like they understand what I'm saying, but I'm not sure they really do.

Are my instincts still working here and are they still so all-powerful?

I don't know. My daughter doesn't look so sure of herself like she did way back when I swaddled her worries away. And my son's smile and fits of laughter come out less frequently now. I know they are there in there -- but I'm no longer the one who can always bring them out.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe I'm NOT supposed to be able to know how to fix it all?

I'm beginning to understand that my actions and words can only take my growing kids so far. They need to be the ones to navigate their worlds which are becoming increasingly more their very own. I can't always be inside their heads, their worlds and their phones.

So what do I do with these instincts, these natural voices in my head?

If I stop and listen closely, I hear them changing. These days they are telling me to not try and swaddle or laugh every worry away. They tell me that my kids need to be able to soothe themselves; to find their own smiles; their own comfortable places; or maybe a not so comfortable place and to be okay with that.

In the meantime, I'll be searching for my new comfortable place where I will hang out for now -- with my instincts.