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Everything I Know About Being a Mom

mother with her kids and the family dog

Tara Striano

Like all new parents, my husband, David, and I made sure that our first child, Conrad, had everything he needed. His registry was brimming with baby must-haves: a heart-beating teddy bear to replicate the comforting sound of the womb, a bouncy seat, a swing, and an exersaucer. His bottles and bum wipes were always warmed. I fed him vegetables before fruits to make sure he didn't develop a sweet tooth. I disinfected every shaker egg in music class and every Starbucks table. During late-night crying jags I left messages with the pediatrician's answering service, undeterred by the doctor's request to do so only in the case of a "true emergency" -- whatever that was.

Fast-forward seven years. We've since had a second child, also a boy, Dashiell. There's nothing to buy because we already have it. And there's nothing to fear because my attitude is "Been there, done that." Now that my mothering pendulum has swung completely from over attentive to totally over it, I'm able to give myself and my second child something I never could with my first. I've given us a break. At 4, Dash is a roll-with-the-punches prankster whose first sentence was "I'm okay, Mom." When I see this robust little boy, I often wish I could go back in time to my new-mother self and tell her to raise Conrad in the more relaxed and confident way I'm raising Dash. I'd pour her a drink, then tell her to turn off the monitor, sit down on the couch, and listen to me count off the things she can stop worrying about, really. But since I can't time-travel, I'll share the four most important ones with you.

Watching Conrad play on a jungle gym was like listening to me do my best Howard Cosell impression: "Careful up the steps. Okay, he's holding on to the railing. Waaatch out. It's slippery. Go down one step at a time. Ooh, he lost the railing. Ooh, his foot is dangling. Aah! He's down!" My gasping and constant "Are you all right?" refrain made Conrad think he should be more hurt than he really was. He saw the fear in my eyes and got frightened himself. Now, at 7, when he takes a spill, no ice or ice cream can ease his pain and his china-doll attitude irks me. I know he'll live -- why doesn't he? We're working on bucking up a bit. I vowed to be different with Dash. I silenced my gasp. I kept my distance and waited for the tears. Often enough I was busy chatting with another mom at the playground and didn't even notice Dash's incidental boo-boos. My indifference paid off: With every hysterics-free stumble, trip, or roll off a step, Dash got a fresh coat of tough-kid Teflon. In Dash's world, there is no extra attention to be had by sitting on the sidelines. He always gets back in the game, and his self-taught stamina is inspiring.

The only thing worse than being away from Conrad was saying bye-bye to him every morning before I left for work. He'd see me reach for my purse and toddle over, clutch my leg, and wail, "Mommy, stay!" My guilt would mount and a process that should take five minutes would drag on for a minimum of 40. I was raised on a dramatic Italian goodbye, but when it comes to kids, lengthy farewells create unnecessary anxiety. The longer I stayed, the more he cried when it was finally time to go. I was killing him softly, and the best thing I could do was reduce our morning routine to two words: distract and disappear. My sitter, Mildred, would plop him in front of Elmo, and I'd sneak out. It was a solution, but it just made him suspicious and clingy.

When my maternity leave with Dash was ending, I knew I needed to come up with a better exit strat-egy. An enlightened friend suggested that I be honest, say goodbye, and let the kids see me leave. Be honest? I laughed in her face because that scenario scared me to death. But sneaking out wasn't working either, so I tried it. A week before work started, Mildred and I did practice runs. I looked my kids in the eye and said, "Mommy is leaving to go to the doctor." Conrad cried, so Dash cried. I got snot on my shoulder during a blubbering hand-off, but by the time I got to the doctor's office and called home to check on them they were playing happily. Now, I tell it to them straight and make my exits as fast as pulling off a Band-Aid.

Gifts follow first children like fairy dust. In Conrad's case, he'd open his hands for a gift when I'd come home from work, even back when he was 1. Getting a present wasn't just for special occasions, it was a way to spend the afternoon. On one trip to the Bronx Zoo, we tried to skip the gift shop, and Conrad had such a terrible temper tantrum that he vomited in the parking lot. I was pregnant with Dash and swore not to repeat this pattern with my second child. Dash was born into a world where "No" never meant sometimes and shopping wasn't part of our mommy-and-me time.

It was a happy coincidence that when Dash turned 1 and was catching on to the concept of presents and ownership, Conrad started coming home from school repeating, "You get what you get, and you don't get upset." I fed this line to Dash with every lopsided ice-cream cone, less-than-awesome Care Bear doctor's-office sticker, and oddball gift from his grandmother. The difference is that Conrad sees YGWYGAYDGU as a stance. He knows it's how he should be, but it's not what comes naturally. Dash understands that YGWYGAYDGU is a way of life. I blame myself for Conrad's attitude. It's a consequence of having been a toy tease: Some days he got a gift just because, but not always, and he was too young to know why. The randomness was confusing. When I did say "No," it made him campaign even harder. I became frustrated with Conrad's toy tenacity and saw a family therapist who explained that by sometimes giving in, I was unwittingly doing what's known as "intermittent reinforcement," which is even more effective at teaching a child how to behave than consistent reinforcement. Every time I allowed Conrad's pleading to turn a "No" into a "Yes," I made him believe there was a loophole to get what he wanted. Now, I have a bigger challenge with Conrad: I'm readjusting his expectations. My history with Dash is less messy. I shut down his requests and don't even hear the crying. He doesn't waste time on false hope, and I know that he'll be happy with whatever he is given. And if he's not, he'll move on to something else.

I was so obsessed with my role as a new mother that I put my marriage on the back burner. I didn't have time to look cute. David thought I looked bodacious after Conrad's birth, but I was in no mood to be romanced. I greeted his question about post-C-section sex with about as much enthusiasm as I faced the prospect of renewing my gym membership. I knew I'd feel better afterward -- as I do after hitting the treadmill. But my body was sleep-deprived, my breasts leaked, I felt fat, and I had a Fran-kensteinish scar below my navel that was numb to the touch. Not hot. As for my heart, I loved David, of course, but I was head over heels in love with Conrad. The intimacy of his falling asleep while nursing and my having to nudge his tiny foot to get his mouth to pop off my nipple when he napped was so new and satisfying I didn't need anything more. I was worried that I loved my son more than I loved my husband.

After about ten weeks, I came around. We pushed the cradle out of the bedroom into the hall, turned on the monitor, and tried to giggle and remember the fun we had making the baby. But then I'd hear Conrad cough or whimper, and I'd start thinking that he was about to stop breathing and that when the police came they would ask why didn't I check the baby, and I'd have to explain that I was trying to have sex with my husband.?

I had a C-section with Dash too. I had the same issues: no sleep, leaking, numbness, and fat. What was different this time? As soon as they handed me my red-faced newborn, the spitting image of Italian-American actor Paul Sorvino, I knew I had enough love for all the guys in my life. It was like my heart was opening up franchise stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Hamptons. With Conrad, the intensity of my love rattled me because it threatened my relationship with David, and I'd figured a second baby would be a wedge between me and my first.

It was just the opposite, though. Dash filled me with confidence and a new sense of possibility that my heart could multitask between everyone's needs and do it joyfully. Plus, I had more support. I already had a babysitter coming to take care of Conrad, so I handed her my new bundle and napped during the day. I fixed myself healthy salads and ate them sitting down. I even took time to work out between feedings. Having nursed before, I didn't feel like Dash was the landlord of my body the way I did with Conrad, it was more like he was simply renting my breasts until he could move on to solids. And when David crept into bed and asked "When?" I couldn't wait to get started. The sex was great, and I realized it is our marriage glue. We disagreed less afterward, we shared inside jokes, and despite the fact that we had 100 percent more kids to take care of, our lives were easier--so much so I wondered if I was ready to be further enlightened by a third.

Copyright © 2010 Meredith Corporation.