Disingenuous Elmo is not the opening act of the opening act of the opening act of MGMT at Coachella. It is the theme to much of my first year of parenthood.
One of the real neat things I do when I get thrown into a situation in which I have no idea what I’m doing is play make-believe that I have control. I put on a $9 wig from Party City and trot around like it’s totally normal and gorgeous. I eventually get swept up in the charade and convince myself that my farce is real, which I guess might be the entire point of pretending in the first place. Playing pretend that we have everything figured out is a coping mechanism. We cling to images and symbols that sound right and we want for ourselves. But when those symbols – take Elmo, in my case – don’t jive with reality, I have to snap myself out of my pantomime and start living as a real person rather than an actor. My neon blue curly wig is not fooling anyone, and it’s only setting me back from embracing my own graying roots.
Elmo was still a minor character on Sesame Street when I was a child. In the ’80s, he was just a minion in the Bird Bird Army. But then, when I was in ninth grade, Tickle Me Elmo came out. Little kids got the Crazy Elmo Eyes and parents became equally possessed with Elmo fever, essentially slitting each others’ throats on Black Friday to acquire one of these toys for their kids. I absorbed the Tickle Me Elmo wars as they were recounted on the evening news. As a side note, just remember the next time you are throwing a shoe at your TV for reporting “news” about skateboarding pigs that this has been going on for years. Fluff journalism is nothing new.
I could not have known it at the time, but observing the fixation that both children and parents had on Elmo in 1996 was shaping my view of parenthood, which I wouldn’t enter myself until 2012. I filed Elmo away as the kryptonite of all crying children, and the vibrating doll became the symbol of parental appeasement.
When my day of reckoning finally did roll around and I pushed C from my loins in a moment of triumph with a splash of what-the-eff-have-I-gotten-myself-into, all those old images of Elmo came back to me like the smell of my kindergarten lunchroom. I clung to them and assumed they were collective parenting Truth. I sincerely believed that if things got really bad one day – like, the baby was screaming from dawn to
dusk dawn, totally angered that she had gotten stuck with me as a mother – Elmo was the trick to fix it all. All I’d have to do was switch him on and she’d mellow out.
This is as delusional as it sounds. Obviously. Elmo was the furthest thing from C’s mind when she was hungry, tired, or just frustrated. All my attempts to thrust that little red monster on her were met with contempt and ire. This is no surprise, of course. It’s also not the moral to the story.
I continued to perpetuate this image of her that she just loved Elmo. Look at my cookie-cutter baby. She is so cute and obsessed with a little red monster. Yes, she is just so attached to him and isn’t that just darling? Thank God for Elmo or I’d never get rest! LOL LOL LOL. Platitude after platitude. It was all fabricated by me because I was panicking that I didn’t know who my kid was. Elmo was this symbol I latched onto and perpetuated in my everyday dealings with other parents and in my writing because I didn’t want anyone to know that even though I loved C, I had no idea who she was. No idea. Some days, she was happy as a lark and then she’s have a Jekyll and Hyde moment and turn into a seething teething monster. Her preferences were fickle. Just when I thought she was developing an attachment to a particular toy, she’d scorn it. She really, really liked that damn Gangnam Style, but that didn’t fit in with my image of things babies should like. So I disingenuously convinced myself that Elmo meant something to her even when she couldn’t give a crap about him. All I wanted was a good, safe symbol.
It has been my experience as a parent that all births come in pairs, even if your child wasn’t a twin. First, you give birth to a little screaming salami. Then, in the bloody, mucousy afterbirth comes another screaming infant: yourself. That person is just as foreign to you as your baby. During your childless years, you were in utero preparing to be pushed forth into a foreign, cold world of parenthood. Just like your baby, you baked long enough to survive on the outside, but surviving is not the same as thriving. You still have to figure out who you are and whether Elmo or whatever you selected as your arbitrary mascot is actually yours. You have to shoot spitballs to the wall and see if any stick. And if they don’t, you have to let it go and forgive yourself for not living up to your idealized version of your parent self. Let that effortless love you have for your baby leak into the dwindling supply of love you have for the parent you, that other new baby. Forgive yourself for not being able to anticipate who you would be.
But then, move on.
It took me a year to realize that Elmo was not ours. More importantly, it took me a year to realize that it’s OK to have moments – nay, weeks – when I look at her and feel like I’m staring at a stranger. Even though I may feel like she changes every day, there is a thin, strong, invisible fishing wire threaded right through her that makes her essentially her. As her mother, I have the ability to find it better than almost anyone else, but only when I stop looking for it and observe her as a whole.
I’m stripping away the Elmos and finding a relationship with my daughter that is better than anything I could have ever seen on the news when I was thirteen.