Sunday, July 16, 2006

Maternal Instincts

In C&I, our profs always used to start each class with “Housekeeping,” meaning logistical stuff, reminders, minor notes and stuff like that. So, to appropriate the term, housekeeping first. It looks like, based on my schedule thus far, it should be reasonable to get two posts up per week. In the middle of the week, when I’m crazy busy and need to be working, it will most likely be (1) a short amusing anecdotal post (a la my carpool conversation or the English t-shirt slogans), or (2) a class activity I’ve already completed and am sharing with you all (a la the “Where I’m From” poem). Both of those kinds of posts take much less time, but are interesting enough that I like sharing them and (hopefully) you like reading them. On the weekends, I should generally have the time to write a more in-depth and thought-out post about any number of subjects.

Did you notice that ‘should’ in the last sentence? I sat down to write a post this afternoon, looked at my topic notes (yes, I keep a running list of potential topics – I generally keep notes on any number of writing projects, which is not unusual for many writers, to keep a writing notebook or journal), stared and thought and let my mind wander for close to an hour, then turned off the computer and went to take a nap without having produced a single word. Complete and utter writer’s block, folks. Of course, I acknowledge that the block was almost certainly caused in large part by how exhausted I am from the week, and if not caused by it, then at least exacerbated. Having the time available to write doesn’t guarantee I’ll have the mental fortitude to produce anything good (which, by the way, does NOT bode well for my various homework assignments for this weekend). But it’s hours later, and I’ve had a nap and some Patxi’s pizza, so hopefully writer’s block has been scared off for the moment. [Note to readers: that part only makes sense in comparison to the timestamp if you understand that this was half-written Saturday night and then finished during a homework break Sunday afternoon.]

A brief word about the subject line (wow, with all of these notes to make, this post is going to be over before I actually get to the point of it. Maybe I’ll make it a two-parter… that would certainly be a way to get an extra post out, for those of you who like getting more bang for your buck… or posts for your buck, but that’s not so neatly alliterative): The phrase “maternal instincts” is a bit unfair, as it is often used to describe a variety of instinctive responses that can be expressed equally well by both men and women. And I can say that I’ve known multiple men who’ve shown wonderful “maternal instincts” (the Red Knight, for example). A better term would really be “parental instincts” or even “caregiver instincts,” to encompass a wider net of people. However, I’m not really in a “Fight the power!” sort of mood, so bear with me as I stick with “maternal instincts.”

The first maternal instinct I remember really noticing as a noticeably distinct trait was something Seeser, Mom and I used to call the “Mommy Rock.” When we were sad or tired or sick or otherwise in need of comfort, we would go to Mom for a hug. But hugging Mom was not just a static hug; when we went to her, she would wrap her arms around us and immediately begin to sway, every so lightly, from side to side, rubbing our back with her hand or gently stroking our hair. We mentioned it to her once and she said she didn’t even think about it, it was just something she did naturally when we came to her. I don’t remember who I was holding (probably one of the Geck kids), but I can remember the first time I picked up a child to hold and noticed that I had started rocking back and forth without thinking about it. It seemed strange to me, because I figured such an obvious action would necessarily require thought, but clearly that wasn’t true. Without realizing it, I had begun to sway.

This particular instinct has stayed with me very strongly, and while I occasionally still notice it once I’ve started, I’ve never found myself not doing it and had to tell myself, “You know, I think this might be a good time for some swaying.” If you’ve ever come to me when you’ve been particularly sad or stressed or anxious and I’ve given you a long hug, you’ve probably encountered it. It’s still true with small children, too. Earlier this week, one of my C&I profs had an emergency and needed some help with her six-week-old while she dealt with it. She knew I’d been a nanny before, and so asked me to help her. At first, it kind of seemed like she really could have chosen anyone from the class, regardless of their experience with kids, as I was mostly helping her pack up the stroller and running to grab things for her. But then she needed to do something and she said, “Why don’t you take her [the baby], and I’ll do this.” And she handed her to me. As I took the baby, I thought how freaked out some of the people from class would probably have been to suddenly have a tiny child in their arms, and why it was actually a reasonable decision to choose to ask me for help because of my nannying experience. So I took her, and I immediately started to rock her and talk to her (she was still a little nervous about all the excitement she’d been through, so I was just chattering at her in a soothing voice, not really talking about anything in particular - this is actually another maternal instinct, knowing how to just talk about nothing so that the baby can hear your voice. A former fellow dancer once commented on it when I was doing it with a friend's daughter at a tech rehearsal for Lady M's last show). I didn’t really notice, as usual, what I was doing – I just knew it made sense to me at the time. My prof’s mother, who was also present, turned to my prof immediately and said, “Oh yeah, she’s got the walk.” It would just seem silly to me, though, to stand there not moving; when I think of some people I’ve encountered in my life, however, I can totally imagine how the sheer foreignness of holding a small child would render them frozen with awkward discomfort.

On Monday, a fellow English teacher-in-training had an emergency and needed to go to the hospital. She was having dizziness and severe abdominal pain and vomiting – it was not fun. I was one of the people present when she started getting really ill, and I (along with a couple other girls) started taking care of her, holding her hair, getting her water, holding wet paper towels on her neck, calling the paramedics, etc. Once the paramedics arrived, they asked us to clear out so they could do their thing, and I was fine with this. I disappeared to the library to do some work. After only a few minutes, though, one of the other helping girls came to find me, saying they’d apparently asked AM if she wanted another student to go with her to the hospital and she’d asked for me. I was a bit startled by this, but I’m not one to turn someone down when they ask for my help, so I gathered my stuff and went to the ER with her. On the way, she asked if she could lay down with her head on my lap, and I told her that was of course fine. So she lay down and I had one arm around her torso, resting on her hip, and with my other hand I stroked her hair. She had her eyes closed and was focusing on her breathing, but after a bit she said, “Thank you for that.” And once again, I realized only because someone else mentioned it what I was doing. Thinking back to my own childhood and my own mother, I have strong memories of having my hair stroked when I was sick or sad, and I remember it always made me feel so much better – safer, loved, cared for. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I suppose if it hadn’t been such a strong instinct – if I’d had to actually think about it – I probably wouldn’t have done it, just because I would have been afraid she’d think I was weird or something (or, God forbid, like I was hitting on her). It’s entirely possible that if the ride had been a bit longer I would have started humming under my breath without realizing it, too.

The strange thing about these instincts is that they don’t manifest until I’ve already been appealed to for help. Sure, once I’m in the situation, it’s clear I have these maternal instincts that drive me to take care of people. But what makes the people ask for my help in the first place? What makes a girl I’ve known for less than a month ask for me when she’s going to the ER? What makes a professor who’s known me less than two weeks ask me to take care of her six-week-old baby? Do I have a sign above my head that says, “My name is Lara and I’m a caregiver”? Don’t get me wrong: I’m quite pleased with my role as caregiver, and I appreciate being able to lend assistance when I can. I guess I sometimes just don’t understand why people are so willing to trust me to take care of them, given how hidden the maternal instincts really are in day-to-day interactions. Is my caregiver vibe really that obvious?


Anonymous said...

> Is my caregiver vibe really that obvious?

Yeah, pretty much.

Natalie said...

"Do I have a sign above my head that says, 'My name is Kari and I’m a caregiver'?"


Lara said...

Well thanks to both of you for letting me know. :-P