I used to check on my babies when they were sleeping, when things had been quiet for a while, before I could sleep. I would step quietly up to the crib and stand there until I could see the rise and fall of their breathing. Sometimes I would reach out and touch, just to be sure. Carefully, of course, because I didn’t want to wake the baby and trigger another round of tending-to-infant-needs. Their sleep was a blessed respite for me, but I still had to check and make sure they were okay.
That impulse has never fully left. I still listen for the sounds of my children. A part of my brain tracks their locations and their safety. Occasionally, I still peek in on them when they are sleeping. Partly I’m checking to make sure the sixteen year old isn’t pulling another all-night you-tube fest on a school night. No lights from screens are in her room, so I step in and let my eyes adjust to the dark until I see her breathe. She is safe. All is well.
Happiness is simple for an infant. If a parent can accomplish breathing and not-crying then what is left is interest and joy. The older the children get, the more complex their internal worlds become. And the less I am able to make sure they’re okay. Checking on the kids requires talking and listening. I have to listen to what they say and infer what they don’t say. Sometimes I know that they are hurting and often there is nothing I can do to heal it. Sometimes what I have to do is not interfere because making them safe prevents them from learning or growing. But it means that there are days I stand outside a teenager’s closed door and wish I could “check for breathing” in a way that quickly ascertains the total well being of the person who shut me out.