not walking
4 August 1999
Damian will be fifteen months old tomorrow. He’s normal in every way, the doc says. Except one. He steadfastly refuses to walk. All the other May Babies (from my May Moms list) have been walking for months now; bipedal transportation is old hat by now. I’m so jealous as I read what their kids are up to. They stomp around with toys in both hands, they pull a wagon that follows behind like an obedient puppy at heel. They run. They wear shoes out so fast their little toes poke out the fronts.

Not Damian. He’s still down on all fours, an evolutionary step behind.

Oh, he has the ability. He can rise to a stand in the middle of the floor with nothing to hold onto. Eerie the first time we saw it, like a phoenix rising up without support. He’s been doing it for months, since before his birthday. Most babies (or so I’ve heard) don’t do that, don’t stand up with nothing to pull up onto, not ‘til after they’ve learned to walk.

He cruises along like nobody’s business -- as long as he has a chair, a couch, a piano bench, some kind of training wheel for the flatfooted. If we had a rail across the living room floor, he’d traverse it like a careful little tightrope walker.

He’s been known to cross the distance from the living room window to the dining table -- twenty feet? more? -- lightly touching my hands with his fingertips, taking a huge step forward with his left foot and a small catchup step with his right. But he does this maybe once a week, probably less. It’s as if he holds the thought of walking up to the light, inspects it, tries it out, then dismisses it. Too much trouble. Not worth the bother.

He’s started to take a single step all on his lonesome. Even two tiny shuffles -- and then he tips forward, falling with intent toward his goal (usually one of us, and we obligingly catch him). Or he’ll stand up in the middle of the living room, step forward -- and then stop and look confused, as if to say "hey, wait a minute, I don’t know how to walk!" and promptly get down on hands and knees to scoot across the floor like a little windup toy, ass waggling as he goes. Secure in his close-to-the-floor mobility.

So he has the technology. I’d say he’s close, but he’s been close for months now. Close is meaningless.

The kicker is, he takes after me. I didn’t walk until I was fifteen and a half months old (the half is critical now that he’s fifteen months and not walking). My brother didn’t until he was twenty two months old -- almost two years. Granted, we walk fine now. It’s not like we late bloomers never quite mastered the art and need crutches or canes or instruction booklets in case we forget. We’re hardly handicapped in the walking department. In fact, Aaron was a dancer until he broke his foot.

My son takes after me and that’s hard. I have a history of never wanting to try unless I can do it perfectly the first time. So does my brother. I don’t want Damian to be this way. It’s too painful. Too limiting. I froze my freshman year of college, so shocked that I couldn’t get outstanding grades with the snap of my fingers. I froze so bad I stopped going to class. If the outcome was in doubt, I better provide a ready made excuse ("I didn’t do well in college because I majored in boys, never went to class"). I wasted a fantastic education at what, by some people’s reckoning, is the best college in the country, just because I was too proud to do badly so I chose not to do at all.

I froze again when I started writing full time. I left a well paying job for this, I better be good. No more excuses, no more "but I could be a great writer if I didn’t work fourteen hours a day." Time to prove my worth.

The first week on my own, supposedly writing but really refining the high art of procrastination, I got the worst series of headaches of my life. Migraines with strange auras. No flashing lights for me, my auras were far more exotic. The first time, I had just made myself lunch and sat down to eat and read. But I couldn’t read. The words looked like Sanskrit -- jumbled hieroglyphs -- black squiggles on a white background. The part of my brain where reading lives lost blood flow and I was word blind.

Things got very complex from there, it turned out I had a bleed in my head and the neurologist became obsessed with my brain, trying to convince me I needed surgery (no, ma’am). That’s a story for another time, I can’t do it justice right now. The upshot was that I was on sleepy-making drugs for the summer, too doped up to do any writing. Medically sanctioned procrastination. I’d successfully run away from the challenge. Skirted the "show us what you’ve got" and the fear of failure that clenched my stomach like a fist. No coincidence that the first part of my brain affected was reading (writing).

On a smaller scale, I decided to make a souffle one day. I love the light puff of it and I wanted to, oh, challenge myself. Do something interesting and different with food. But souffles are mysterious. Souffles fall if you breathe wrong when you’re putting them in the oven. I was determined my first attempt would be perfect. It had to be. I got so tight while beating the egg whites, I was stiff as a board before they were stiffened even to soft peaks. I folded so gently the ingredients all stayed separate in their little pockets and never melded into one in that magical alchemy. I put my lumpy, over-beaten mixture in the oven and waited, quaking, for proof that I wasn’t a miserable failure as a cook. But I got so antsy that I opened the oven -- just a little peek -- and the souffle came tumbling down. My anxiety flattened it. I went for a long walk, leaking tears. To get this worked up over a souffle? Uh, know any good shrinks?

Therapy was wonderful. I explored all the terrors, laid them out like a photo album from some exotic overseas trip -- "here, see, here’s where I went ballistic and slammed out of the car", "This? Ah yes, that’s when my father made me babysit instead of going to my very first New Years Eve Party. I brought back a souvenir, see the emotional scar right here? Lovely, huh?" And I knew Jeff would never judge me. I laid out all my fears.

Fears of not measuring up to my parents’ expectations, or of not being seen by them at all, lost as they were in their own worlds.

Of becoming them, of blowing soap bubbles in the air, each one filled with "I’m so wonderful" or "it will be perfect this time, you’ll see." Of living in fantasy.

I couldn’t fail, didn’t have room to fall because it meant my hopes, my faith in myself? Just another shiny rainbow bubble of self-deception. Perfection meant I was okay. Imperfection opened the door to complete disgrace. All or nothing.

I learned -- am still learning -- to forgive myself, to give more myself more room. To put a cushion down under a net under my high wire act. To trust friends and family, Dan and most of all myself to catch me when I fall.

But what about Damian? Why does he already think he has to be perfect? Is it in the DNA? Something passed through the placenta from me to him along with blood and nutrients? Is it the admiration he hears in our voices, already precociously not wanting to let us down? He’s only fifteen months old, where does this hesitation come from?

Dan thinks it’s something altogether different. He thinks Damian is like me in another way, that he learns intuitively. Dan does things methodically, one step at a time (so to speak). When he was learning to walk, I’m sure he tried this and he tried that, took a wobbly step and plop! fell on his ass. Took another and yes, another plop! Grabbed onto any passing sibling or parent to try try again. Left brain careful learning. I’m more the drink it all in school, I metabolize it, let it become part of my very core and then -- la! She’s walking! And he’s right, I see this in myself, and I see it in Damian, an almost unconscious learning process, the motor skill synapses clicking into place here and over there, but not yet in between and one day -- la! he’ll be running. Jumping. Dancing.

I want to let him develop at his own pace and not worry about what anybody thinks. I want him to grow up unencumbered by my sometimes crippling self doubts. I want him to be fierce and free and wild and strong. I want to be a perfect mommy fostering a supremely self-confident child.

Uh oh. There I go again.

home // next

current log / Damian essay archive / other essays archive / what's all this, then?

copyright 2001 Tamar