4 1/2 Ways Nursery and Dorm Room Shopping are Alike

Mary Dell writes: Soon-to-be college freshman and their moms flock to stores during the summer for dorm room shopping. Mothers look overwhelmed, aware of the finality of this back-to-school excursion. But is there another reason we moms share that certain look in our eyes? Do we time-travel back 18 years, when we prepared the first tiny rooms for these same children? Once again, we are gripped by nesting instincts as we experience 4 1/2 ways nursery and dorm room shopping are alike.

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Consider the similarities:

Nursery: crib sheets                           College: x-long twin sheets

Nursery: baby wipes                           College: Clorox wipes

Nursery: Diaper Genie                       College: laundry baskets

Nursery: baby monitor                       College: pc with Skype

Nursery: bumper pads                        College: if only…
Distinguishing between true essentials and all the rest comes only once the baby is home from the hospital or a few weeks after your child begins classes. Irresistible on the shelf, some sweet possessions remain in their boxes in the tidy baby’s room. Likewise, stand back when your college freshman retrieves whatever may be stashed under a bed, grimy and covered with lint, yet unused, in May.

While white-knuckling shopping carts, we become fixated with the hunt for a perfect “something” for our child, be it a crib mobile or a coffee maker. When it was my turn to help our son prepare for freshman year, I studied the Campus & Beyond Checklist at Bed, Bath and Beyond, imagining a dorm room with him and all of his college provisions neatly unpacked and ready to be deployed.

Likewise, as a soon to be new mom, I turned to nursery checklists, fretting about what we might really need. Not knowing the sex of the baby eliminated the obvious pink or blue choices for the linens, compounding my confusion. After much hunting through pastel and primary designs, I found them: crisp white crib sheets, with floating red, white and blue letters and delicate illustrations.  The baby could begin literacy training from day one!

In my parallel, separated-by-18-years universe, I took aim at the oh-so-important comforter selection. Attempts at discussing this signature piece of dorm decor with my son resulted in a shrug and “just pick whatever you like, Mom.”

A few weeks later, my husband, daughter and I helped him move into his new college abode. Eventually it was time for final hugs and goodbyes.

I wonder what he thought when he spied the stow-away I hid among the stacks of new clothes. Nestled inside was a small, light blue stuffed rabbit, one that resembled his favorite toy as a baby, wearing a scarf fashioned out of a corner of the alphabet crib linens. I tucked the bunny in with the boxers and indulged my need for a final gesture of motherly sentimentality and a deep wish that the little rabbit might remind our son of home.



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Unexpected Pleasures of Parenting

One of life’s great pleasures is having our expectations exceeded. And of all the unexpected pleasures life gives us, perhaps none is greater than becoming a parent. For no matter how much we know we will love our children, the actual experience of loving them is almost beyond words. With a heady cocktail of inexperience and overconfidence I thought I knew what parenthood beheld. I thought I had my mind wrapped around parenting and had realistic expectations of what was to come. Of course, I had no idea.

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The surprises:

Being a parent is having a front row seat in the theatre of someone else’s life. It is a chance to witness the entire arc of a life from the first breath, to that first awkward day of middle school, to the moment we hit the replay button and our children have children.
For me it has been an unmatched and unprecedented opportunity to reflect deeply and in living color on my own life.

Being a parent has allowed me to be a child again. My childhood was simple and middle class, the stuff the 1960s and 70s were made of. My husband’s was much more austere in a country and family with far less. Yet I will be eternally grateful to our sons for allowing us to experience childhood all over again with them. From the first time they laughed at Pat the Bunny to the day they stood in front of It’s a Small World jumping up and down and begging to go on the ride for a third time, to the afternoon they drove away with their brand new drivers licenses, I have felt immersed in every step of their childhood. We identify with our children, critics say we over identify, but for me this has meant reliving childhood, but better.

By having a child I learned what kind of stuff I was made of. I thought I had faced challenges with a tough school, a tough job, life overseas…child’s play, so to speak. The toughest job, bar none, is parenthood. Children push us to the emotional edge, in good ways and bad and sometimes to the physical edge as well. The closest I came was at 4:00 am one morning when I had been up for twenty-one hours and was holding my infant who would not sleep. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, “You know what? Yes. You! You are going to be an only child. You behave like this and you are getting no brothers or sisters. An only child, do you hear me!” It was the worst threat my deranged mind could think of and my husband, who had long since made his way to the couch, had the good sense to switch places with me. My next son was born ten months later.

I knew that my husband and I would love being parents. We are both eldest children and had long shifts of caring for younger siblings, but I could never have fathomed how much we would love sharing this experience. We had the same career, we could talk for hours about our friends and our work and our aspirations. We could talk about books and our upbringing, about things we hoped to learn and things we hoped to forget, but nothing has or ever will come close to the shared passion for our children. He is the one person on the planet that I cannot bore with constant talk of how wonderful I think my kids are, there is no level of minutiae (well, he got a B+ on the essay part, it would have been an A- but the teacher…) that I can sink to in discussing our offspring that will lose his interest.

Parenthood begins with showing our children the world, but it is not long before they return the favor. I knew I would be a teacher. I never imagined how quickly I would become a student. I have learned about glass, pre-World War II aircraft and Tim Tebow. I am up on current music and the standings in the English Premier Soccer League. But I am a visitor to these worlds, and inhabit them because my children are there and when their interests and lives move on, so will mine, all the wiser for it. Later still our children literally take us places, as we move them into summer camp cabins or college dorm rooms, their first apartments or back into our homes. We take them places for a few years, they take us places for the rest of our lives and at every step we learn something.

Some of this learning will not be good. When they get sick we will study everything about their ailment. When they have trouble learning we master everything about their difficulty and when they get caught speeding, drinking or lying we must search for the fine line that runs between how much to help and how much to punish. We will be wiser, but sometimes painfully wiser.

There is a feeling of exhilaration as they accomplish something that we know for all the world is not within our grasp. It is the thrill of seeing them swim faster than we know we ever could, shoot a basket we never would have made or face an unfamiliar social setting with poise and confidence that we can only dream about. It is the moment when they appear in their prom dress or tux and we can feel ourselves so young and beautiful again, if only for a second. They are not us, but we will never so enjoy another’s triumph or feel it so keenly.

I was pretending to be an adult until the moment my eldest was born and I knew it was time to stop pretending. My husband and I may have had careers, a car and an apartment but as we were beholden to no one, at times our early marriage felt like an extension of a long luxurious adolescence that no one was in a hurry to push us out of. One of the truly unexpected joys was realizing that, as the nurses at the hospital waved goodbye and I carried my newborn out to the car, I was an adult, a mother and that we would be alright. I have my children to thank for that.



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Lessons at the Knee of the Master, My Father in Law

Lisa writes: The first time I left my eldest child was to go to a wedding, overnight. The celebration was obligatory and I was a wreck. I was worried beyond all reason that something would happen to my year-old baby and truly did not want to abandon him for an hour let alone twenty-four hours.

My husband convinced me that I had to learn to leave him and that my father-in-law, my son’s grandfather, would care for him, if perhaps not exactly as I would.  Our son, he reminded me, would be in good hands. When I arrived back home, all I can say, is that both sets of hands, big and small, were covered in chocolate.

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In 24 short hours my son had learned a new word, “choc,” thereby increasing his vocabulary to three words. He couldn’t say “Grandad”, but he could say “choc.” My husband could see that I was apoplectic and talked me down off the ledge (for the record, I wasn’t going to jump, I was going to push my father-in-law).

When my father-in-law saw my astonishment at feeding chocolate to a baby, he explained, in his soft Irish brogue, that Cadbury made their Chocolate Buttons so small in order for tiny hands to successfully manage them. Cadbury, he was implying, knew better what my child should eat than I did. I don’t remember that I took that well.  In a better frame of mind I might have understood on that day that I had much to learn.

This is what my FIL has done to my children. He has dressed two of them in each others’ clothing and never noticed. They are not twins. He has put them in each others diapers so that a younger child was swimming in one much too large for him and an older child was an unholy mess. See above, they are still not twins. He helped my eleven year old son dye his brown hair bright blond, with permanent color, and it took two rounds at the hairdresser to get his hair brown enough to return to school in September. I lost the battle early with chocolate and to this day he arrives at my doorstep from Europe, with one suitcase of clothing and another filled with candy.

My FIL has played soccer, cricket, golf, and American football with my kids even though he has no idea how to throw a football, or even how to hold it. He’s taken them bike riding and fruit picking. He has taught them to plant vegetables and bet on horses.

He has laughed with them at Tom and Jerry and sang along with Barney. He has run after soccer balls by the hour as my boys practiced shot after shot, usually missing the goal entirely. He has taken them to parks and zoos and movies and playgrounds. He has taken them river rafting, which is all the more heroic because he doesn’t know how to swim.

When they were tiny he would rise with them, long before the sun, sneak them out of their beds or cribs so quietly that as my husband and I slept, we never even heard him put them in their stroller and leave for the park. Before they returned they had eaten breakfast at McDonald’s. There was syrup in their hair, bits of pancake stuck to their clothing yet I would have slept until 9:00.

My FIL gave them their first piece of chocolate and their first pint of beer, and he was there for everything in between. He has taught them to use every power tool sold by Home Depot and they have taught him to play dorm room drinking games.  I don’t know who is the wiser.

And here we are, nearly twenty years later and my sons, my very grown up sons, look forward to his every visit and beg him to return as he leaves.

When my sons were visiting colleges my FIL came along on our trips. This is a man whose education comes very much from another era. My boys were excited about the prospect of this next step but their true appreciation for the opportunity being placed in front of them came when the saw college through my FIL’s eyes. He gave them the gift of perspective. To them this was one more step on the path of their lives, albeit the most exciting one; to him it was beyond imagination.

So what did I finally learn?  We learn to be grandparents while we are still only parents. Even as our children are tiny, long before we can imagine their offspring, we are watching and learning from those who have parented for far longer than we have.

This is what my FIL has done for me. He has shown me how to be a grandparent. When I get there I know I will be ready. For while I was learning to be a mother, quietly without a word, he was teaching me to be a grandmother. On some blessed day in the future, with a beautiful grandchild in my arms I will remember that a bit of chocolate never hurt a child, that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than being there for your grandchild, that dirty faces, leaky diapers and permanent platinum blond hair do not matter in the face of true grandparental love.



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