I gave Sophie her first-ever watercolor paints today. She’s at that age when I can hardly resist getting her presents, because she’s adorably interested in exploring her world. She’s fascinated by string instruments, so I got her a ukulele which she actually plays to her Baby Doll, just strumming and plucking, of course, not playing tunes or anything crazy-prodigy-like, just playing with her ukulele, and it’s gorgeous to watch. I also got her a CD of the brilliant Yo Yo Ma / Mark O’Connor / Edgar Meyer collaboration “Appalachia Waltz,” which is now becoming the soundtrack to our house. How can I resist buying her things, when her wants are just so wonderfully simple & artistic & creative & world-discovering?
So I got her watercolors today, and she loved them.
But she didn’t love me hovering over her, praising her every brush-stroke, then nagging her to use less water and keep each of the paint colors separated in their container. “Momma,” she said, “go cook. Cook.”
When it became clear that I was absolutely done cooking, she switched to, “Momma, go play with my baby-doll.” Her Baby-Doll was in the room farthest from her new paints, and she knew it. She doesn’t yet know the phrase, “Leave me alone,” but she does know how to try to get me to leave her alone. She wanted to explore those paints without me.
So I tried to stay out of her way, just peeking around every now & then, offering her new blank white pages to paint on each time she soaked through the last page. Her paints are all brown now, with all the colors hopelessly intermingled. She’s already used up all the light pink and pale green.
And I am one proud Momma.
Maybe it’s because just an hour after trying to get rid of me, she was giggling uproariously with me when I squirted water at her in her bath. Or maybe it’s because for every time she said, “Momma, go cook, cook” she also, later at bedtime, said, “Momma, hug me, hug.” She’s not too independent, yet.
But I think it’s also because I am truly proud of her independence, paradoxically proud that she doesn’t need me as much as she used to.
My mother used to declare that the goal of all mothers, teachers, and utopian Communist bureaucrats is a particularly strange goal: it is to make ourselves unnecessary. As a teacher, this rings true. It’s not self-annihilation that I work to achieve, it’s closer to self-replication. I want my students to be able to do historic research on their own, without me at their side all the time. But “replication” is actually the wrong term, because I also want my students to think thoughts that haven’t yet occured to me. When they surprise me, when they work independently, that’s when I know I am truly succeeding — and becoming less necessary to them. All my years of teaching didn’t prepare me for the first few months of motherhood, but it is coming in more handy now.
Although I’m still tempted to clean the brown, muddy mess out of her watercolor paint box.