The Words We Know

A wayback machine journal entry from 9/29/04 reminding me of the dull aching grind of mothering small kids

One of the words we had in our family was “puny.” My mother used it when we were sick.

“Are you feeling puny?” she would ask us, feeling our forehead. Or, “Be kind to your sister today; she’s got the punies.”

My husband, who loves new words and loves to use them not quite correctly on purpose, tried to co-opt puny. He was using it every time our daughter squawked and it started to annoy me.

“You are denigrating the word puny,” I told him sternly. “You’re going to obliterate it through misuse!”

He was banned from puny and all of its off-spring.

But today my daughter really is feeling puny, which is a word that is a specific kind of sick. It means weighty and aching, tired and dispirited — the exact description of teething babies full of unrealized infant ambition.

All she wants to do these days is pull up to stand; crawling no longer satisfies her. Once she’s up, she wants to grab anything in reach to shove into her mouth or else she’ll bang triumphantly on the object supporting her. She topples over regularly then lies there on her back screaming in fury. I stay close by to rescue her. One hug and she’s off again. Her head is turning away even as her little hands clutch my sleeves. That’s my job: Chief Baby Picker-Upper.

I remember this age with my son, too. I remember that this was when I realized that without a doubt I wanted to stay home with him and I also began to understand why another woman might want to leave. It’s an exhausting, boring stage. You’re so needed but at the same time so faceless. At this age — and for at least two years more — parenting is servitude.

I lie on my back most mornings and stare at the ceiling, waiting for my coffee to cool. I can’t close my eyes because she might sense it and lunge for something deadly; I’m a slave to my peripheral vision. I have an open paperback within arm’s reach of any place I might be in the family room, several going all at once. I pick one up and start to read and halfway through the paragraph, I’ll realize that I’m reading something entirely different than I expected. It’s like biting into an apple when you were expecting a pear — not unpleasant, but disconcerting.

I can’t read for very long — a sentence or two before I look back up. Therefore, any book I read has to hum along easily. Last week I read Nickel Mountain and The Hours and a book of writer’s essays. The essays were the easiest because I can fall back in anywhere and each entry is so short. This week its The Dogs of Babel and Kay Boyle’s The Crazy Hunter and another set of essays. One book is by the chair, one is by the table and a third is on the bookshelf. I try to read magazines, too, but the crinkling pages are too tempting for a baby in love with her senses.

Today she cried over and over again. She would pull up and crow then tip back and wail. She crawled towards a chair, bumped her head and broke her heart. I went to fix her a bottle and when she saw me leave, she began to weep. I turned to see her sitting with her head bowed, her little fists clenched as if I had abandoned her forever, heaving wrenching sobs. She woke from her nap hysterical then fell asleep again before I picked her up.

Her teeth hurt and are taking such a long time to come in. Her body won’t let her rest. The world is a rush around her and she can’t control a thing. No wonder she feels achy and sad and small. No wonder she feels so puny.