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As the mother of a pandemic baby, my contact with the outside world was so limited during those first few months of parenthood. Lucy was born in May 2020 during the height of that first scary, unknown wave of the pandemic. We only ever entered another indoor space to go to the doctor’s office for Lucy’s wellness visits with her pediatrician, Dr. Farrish.

Sweating in the D.C. heat, I pushed Lucy’s stroller through the doctor’s office as people sought to glimpse Lucycertainly one of the few happy things for people to see during such a frightening time. Sitting alone and masked in the waiting room, I felt so vulnerable. Would the pediatrician think I was a bad mom? Was Lucy progressing with her neck strength? Was she gaining enough weight?

Each visit, Dr. Farrish happily greeted us. As she engaged with Lucy, I could feel myself relaxing. She never offered criticism, just encouragement and suggestions. My eyes often welled up in relief. In her moments of compassion, Dr. Farrish reminded me a lot of my best friend Kathleen, also a physician. The similarity offered comfortsomething I desperately needed. Those pediatrician visits, so frequent in the beginning, offered just a check-in, a chance for someone else to see my baby and verify that she was actually doing okay. 

Though Lucy is now two and the visits are less frequent,  I still really look forward to her wellness check-ups. After listening to my updates, Dr. Farrish always knows how to provide a few succinct pieces of advice that offer clarity and the opportunity to reframe how I’ve approached parenting.

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Lucy, a ball of energy and personality, has had a language explosion recently and tells us everything going on (and sings), so there are no doubts in my mind about her language development. But some things are harder to gauge. She’s small and snacks a lotwill happily eat a whole banana on the stroller ride home from school or chomp on a bag of carrots while I’m getting dinner ready. But is she the best eater ever? I’m not sure, and probably not because I’m also limited in how many new foods I’ve introduced to her.

Like most toddlers, she also has meltdowns over seemingly small things. Telling her it’s time for dinner leads to crying on the floor, hysterical. I’m grateful that her fabulous teachers at daycare have taught her to “take a break.” When Lucy asks to “take a break,” she finds a quiet spot, usually in a corner, to sit and be quiet. We leave her alone, and usually in a few minutes, the break is done and she’s ready to join us for dinner. But it doesn’t always work. 

I didn’t have any serious concerns, but I wanted to get feedback. I explain all of this to Dr. Farrish, trying to suss out what behavior is normal and where I could improve. She’s so patient with Lucy, who was busy explaining that she wants to be an astronaut while using the toy stethoscope to inspect her dolly. Even behind the mask, I can tell she’s smiling at Lucy’s growthshe’s known her since she was one day old, and now Lucy can have a full conversation with her doctor. But seeing that Lucy is absorbed in the stethoscope, the pediatrician turns to me.

“When you take a child bowling, you put up bumpers, right?” I nod, waiting for the anecdote to take shape. “Well, you have to think about parenting as bowling with bumpers. You are putting up bumpers all day long: to help them eat, to keep them safe, to help them learn to regulate their emotions. The goal is to get the ball down the bowling lane, no matter what. You’re doing the same thing: she eats when she wants to eat. She’s clearly eating a variety of foods and her growth is progressing according to a normal growth curve. Lucy is telling you when she needs a breakthat’s a good bumper too. Each day with a toddler is different, but you’re figuring out what bumpers you need to put up to get Lucy down the lane.”

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What a way to frame things. I get so caught up in the minutiae of each thing. If she rejected a food today, does that mean she’ll hate it for life? Or will one meltdown set her up to be temperamental forever?

That bumper analogy takes a lot of pressure out of each day. Lucy has a lifetime to figure this outit’s not going to hinge on the success of any given day

There are so many days when Lucy may not have finished her dinner or cried during bath time. Or days when her dinner ended up being cereal and yogurt even though she assured me just an hour ago that the stew I was making was “tasty and yummy.” But she’s not getting set up to be doomed to failure.

We’re just getting the ball down the lane. Not all of the pins get knocked down, but we are making it through each day. The days when she gobbled up her veggies, that’s a strike, or when she happily works on a craft, a strike. But a dinner of cereal is bowling a spare too, and we aren’t in the gutter.

I think I needed someone else’s permission to put down the bumpers. To know that it’s okay to put on some TV, to see some tears flow, or just sit and take a break.

The bumpers aren’t just for Lucy . . . they’re for us too. We all need a little help making it down the lane in one piece. It’s not cheating when it’s with kidsthe bumpers are a lifeline. It means we won’t bicker with each other or go to bed angrywe know we did enough to get Lucy down the lane for the day.

And isn’t that the victory?

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Vanessa R. Corcoran

Vanessa Corcoran is an advising dean and adjunct professor of history at Georgetown University. Her memoir, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and Ph.D., is now available. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Pat, and their daughter, Lucy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @VRCinDC.

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