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I had a party at my house last night. As I was rushing around, trying to clear a path through the family room, I glanced at the armchair and had the same thought I always do when company descends: God, I really need to get rid of that ratty old thing.
But I can't do it.
I bought this chair almost 20 years ago. When I was pregnant with our fifth child, I answered that “call to nest” that trumpets during every woman’s pregnancy and stopped in a discount furniture store. There, I waved a credit card and chose this chair.
It wasn't until I got it home that I realized my new chair’s enormous flowers, so playfully beguiling in the store, looked like something the dog had coughed up.
“It’s a little loud, isn’t it?” my husband asked.
“It’s shouting,” I agreed glumly.
So my husband lugged the chair upstairs, where the only empty corner turned out to be in our bedroom.
Oh well, I thought, standing with my arms crossed over my (huge) belly and contemplating this splashy stranger in my bedroom. With a small table and lamp beside it, the chair would be the perfect place to quietly nurse our new baby. We could sell it later.
I bought this chair almost 20 years ago. When I was pregnant with our fifth child ... That baby is now a college sophomore
That baby is now a college sophomore, but through the years, this chair has become the most important seat in our house.
During the early weeks after our new son was born, I retreated to the new armchair a dozen times a day. I nursed the baby downstairs occasionally, but this corner had the advantage of being quiet.
Gradually, however, our four older children — my husband's son and daughter, and my son and daughter, then ages 8, 9, 10 and 11 — discovered my secret spot. The minute I came upstairs and started nursing, someone would appear with a dispute, a request or a question.
A typical day: During one morning nursing session, my daughter tiptoed in to ask whether I think she’s old enough to wear hanging earrings. (No.) Later that afternoon, my stepson charged in to show me a new drawing — dragons and knights, one severed arm, a castle under siege. My son Blaise stopped by during the baby’s last feeding to report that the dog’s eyes looked funny; he wanted to know if we’d get another dog when this one died. Finally, during the baby’s 10 p.m. feeding, my husband sat on the bed across from the Listening Chair, as I had started to call it, worrying aloud about work.
In the beginning, I resisted these intrusions and tried to get rid of my interlopers. “Isn’t there something you want to watch on TV?” I would ask.
Those first interruptions made me remember something my mother told during my first pregnancy, in the tones of a doomsday prophet: “Once you have children, you’ll never be alone again.”
True. Years ago, when my oldest kids were still in preschool, I once stepped into the postage stamp bathroom off the kitchen. No sooner had I unzipped my jeans when my daughter burst in to clutch my leg, shrieking. Blaise came into the bathroom to see what the fuss was about, closing the door only after thoughtfully calling the dog to join us.
“What are you doing?” I asked him through clenched teeth. “Why in the world are you closing the door?”
“To give you privacy, Mom,” he answered.
Now, as any parent knows, privacy is rare. You sit down to pay bills, and a sibling skirmish breaks out over the last juice box. You prepare your morning coffee just in time for the masses to descend and plead for help with homework or hair. You learn to guard your alone time with a growl and resort to reading the morning paper at night.
The corollary of this chaos is that family conversations skate on the surface. Never mind all of the directives from experts suggesting that parents engage our kids in pithy one-on-one quality time. With so many domestic duties to attend to, we favor questions with “yes” or “no” answers:
“Did you clean your room?”
“Have you done your homework?”
Even conversations with our spouses are informational one-liners:
“Did you pick up the milk?”
“Can you bathe the baby while I finish the laundry?”
And, with no choice but to simply listen, I learned how to hear even those things they didn’t tell me.
Most of the time, managing a family is a lot like running a boot camp. You have to constantly be on alert and in clear command if everyone’s needs are to be met.
The problem with meeting everyone’s “needs” is that real conversation takes a back seat to the things we have to get done. We are, after all, the culture that coined “multitasking” as a verb, the society that made it seem like a good idea to go to the gym instead of taking lunch, and to carry cell phones to the beach. We are in touch with everyone, all of the time, yet we never really have a conversation. We’re too busy getting information across.
As my children taught me, whenever I nursed the baby in the ugly new bedroom chair, I was theirs for 20 minutes, guaranteed. So in they came. And, with no choice but to simply listen, I learned how to hear even those things they didn’t tell me.
For instance, when my daughter asked if she could wear hanging earrings, what she really wanted to know was whether she’s still my little girl now that she has a baby brother. My stepson, who felt the most displaced by his father's new infant son, wanted me to admire his art because he needed to know he was still special. And Blaise really was worried about our dog, but he had also reached an age when love and loss loomed as real possibilities.
I don’t have a baby to nurse any more. But the listening chair has made it downstairs, and I imagine it will be well used this Thanksgiving. This one bargain piece of furniture done up in noisy floral fabric has become our family's sanctuary, a place where we can listen between the words and not only hear what's new, but remember why we're together.
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