Baby Steps

How to raise an Arkansan

LastWord

There was a bit of chill in the airJanuary in Arkansas and all—so we grabbed the mittens and her fleece hat with the teddy-bear ears on top, the one that, when Velcroed snugly beneath her pudgy chin, turns her into a powder-pink Ewok. Into the diaper bag went a snack—a Tupperware tub of those mystery-food stars known to mothers everywhere as “puffs”—and a sippy cup of milk. Into the front pocket, as always, went the iPhone. My husband calls me “Paparazzi.” No moment is too insignificant to document when you’ve got a 1-year-old.

She’s our first child, if you can’t tell. And I’m somewhat of a nervous first-time mother, an overreactor of the first degree. Poor thing hadn’t even been on the planet for 72 hours when I first started the Googling. She can’t so much as ker-choo! without my heart dropping to my knees.

These past 15 months, though, I’ve learned that with the first-time-mom anxiety—and that stuff is real, folks—comes something else: the wonder of watching your baby make her first unsteady forays into the big wide open. It’s damn near indescribable, how it feels to watch your little one grow and change and adapt and soak up every little thing around her. It’s life-changing. Life-affirming, even. And it’s why there’s absolutely nothing else you’d rather do on winter’s first sunny Sunday than bundle up your baby like a burrito and introduce her to the wonders that are—and the wilderness that is—Allsopp Park.

It was the first time in months that we’d been able to play outside. It had either been too cold or too wet. Her nose had been too runny. Her gigantic puffer coat hadn’t been quite warm enough. Today was different, though. I couldn’t wait to hold her little mittened hand as we walked along the trail, or to watch her as she watched our wheaten terrier muck through the creek. Would she throw pebbles into the water? Would she watch, mouth ajar, as the swaying branches threw spindly shadows across the gravel?

Once at the park, I double-checked her hat’s strap and pulled the mittens over her hands. “Snug as a bug in a rug,” I said to her, then helped her down to the ground. My husband and I walked a few feet ahead, toward the creek. But she didn’t follow. I got down on one knee and opened my arms wide, urging her forward. She didn’t budge. Her lower lip quivered, and her brow furrowed. Her dad tried, too, using a pine cone to entice her. No luck. And then came the tears.

We tried everything—the trail, the playground, the creek, the concrete path, the parking lot. No matter. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she froze. An overstuffed baby statuette. I started to panic: How am I going to raise an Arkansas baby if she can’t WALK IN THE GRASS?

And then it hit me: This is my fault. I mean, I was the Girl Scout who brought a curling iron to camp. But she’ll be different, I’d been telling myself. She has her PopPop—her father’s father—in her, after all, and he’s the guy who hunts deer and bass-fishes in his very own bass-fishing pond and plants purple-hull peas and built a scarecrow and knows how to cook blackberry cobbler in a Dutch oven over a fire. (Seriously. Like, over smouldering coals.)

Driving home from the park, watching her mud-free shoes bob around in her car seat, I thought of everything she’d be missing out on, cursed as she was with this outdoors phobia that I’d inadvertently instilled within her. I mean, how would she go to overnight camp? Would she ever know what it’s like to sleep under the stars? Jump in a lake? Fall out of a canoe? I’d failed her. I felt it, and it was heavy.

She’s doomed, I thought.

A few weeks later, after more rain and more cold and even more cold rain, the sun came out again. I knew what was coming. After lunch, my husband gathered the mittens and the fleece hat. He sat our dirt-fearing daughter on his lap and fastened the tiny Velcro straps on her impossibly tiny Converse sneakers. I grabbed the puffs and the milk, but I left the iPhone behind. I’d lowered my expectations.

We pulled into the same spot at the same park, and my husband lowered our little girl onto the same patch of grass that had zombified her just weeks before. My heart caught in my chest as she immediately took a few clumsy steps—She’s doing it! She likes it! It’s all going to be OK! And then, as quickly as she took off, she caught a toe on an evergreen’s gnarly roots, sending her crashing to her knees, her delicate hands smooshing deep down into the loamy sand.

I steeled myself, preparing for the inevitable meltdown. Where’s the paci? THE WIPES?! But she didn’t cry. Instead, she turned over her palms and stared in wonder. She rubbed her hands together, relishing the feel of the grit between her fingers, marveling at the brown flecks of dirt on her otherwise porcelain skin. She looked up and smiled into the winter sun. She stood—one tiny Converse, then the other—and threw her head back, giggling that little giggle I’ll try my darnedest to hear forever. Without casting a green-eyed glance in our direction, she ran full speed toward the playground, her hat’s pink teddy-bear ears flopping in the breeze.