For Whom the Napkin Folds

A week before our wedding, Joe and I met with the manager of the beer garden where we were holding the reception. “Now, how do you want the napkins folded?” he asked. “I can do fans, unless it’s too windy and then we might not be able to….”

Joe and I just gazed at him with amused smiles on our faces. “We have a one-year-old,” I said. “We change a lot of diapers. When we went to City Hall to get married, Joe picked up my best friend’s crying newborn and got poop all over his vest and jacket. Whatever style you fold the napkins will be great with us.”

I was trying to remember if, when I first got married at 25, I had an opinion about the napkins. I’m pretty sure I did. From my perspective at the time, that mattered. Now, at 37, would I care about the napkin folds if I didn’t have a child? Maybe. It’s hard for me to remember what I thought was important before I became a parent.

With a baby, there’s always that question in the back of my mind—is what I’m doing for him right now good for him in the long run? Is this the right way to feed him? The right way to play? The right amount of time to let him struggle with something, the right amount of brain stimulation, the right way to teach him discipline? Sometimes I am able to trust my knowledge and instinct and much calmer husband; other times, I torture myself with whether I’m doing well enough as a mother.

The napkin moment made me wonder what myself 10 or 20 years from now will be shaking her head about as she looks back at me in this early stage of parenting.

How will my perspective shift as my children get older and I grow into my role as their mother? What are my baby blind spots—the things I’m worrying and fussing over now that, in retrospect, really aren’t that big a deal?

As a middle and high school teacher, I got to know hundreds of adolescents very well, and interacted with parents representing a wide range of backgrounds, social classes, and parenting styles. Through my years of teaching, I learned that there are many right choices a parent can make, and they are not defined by how much money is spent or what theory is followed. The most important things in parenting are presence, consistency, and love.

Great parents make efforts to know and connect with their child, to interact meaningfully in playful and serious ways, and to be present in their daily lives, whether a night shift job means they have a ritual of evening texts or they spend hours together after school. Great parents have a clear set of values and communicate them consistently with their child, in a variety of ways. And great parents embrace the incredible, overwhelming love they feel for their child and let their child know that love every day.

When I’m in the middle of a fret-fest about whether it’s ok to give my son a snack in his stroller and which laundry detergent is the best for his little sweatpants, I’m going to try to remember the napkins, and how laughable it seemed to me to worry about how they were folded.

Do choices I make for Asher as a baby matter? Sure. Do they matter as much as I sometimes let myself think they do? No, they do not.

Those baby blind spots can be pretty distracting from the real work of being with and loving on our babies. Maybe our 40- and 50-something-year-old selves will gently remind us of that sometimes.