The Agony of a Lost Sock
It was a blue sock, sized six to twelve months, and it had a faux mary jane stitched onto the foot. Adorable, but not irreplaceable. My daughter, then a ruddy eight-month-old gumming the shoulder strap on her stroller, kicked it off somewhere on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland. We’d been browsing, killing the long hours in the afternoon after her nap and before the return of her father from work. An older woman pointed out its absence, perhaps hinting that I ought to have kept my child better shod in the chilly March weather.
I can find it, I thought. We haven’t been in that many stores. It’s just lying under a t-shirt display; I’ll peek in the last few shops, grab it, and be on my way. Besides, where do I have to be?
But it wasn’t in the last shop, or the one before, or the one before that. It wasn’t in the street, it wasn’t on the sidewalk, it wasn’t helpfully laid on top of a newspaper rack or the lid of a recycling bin–it was nowhere. I even asked a few people if they had seen it, aware of the fact that only a crazy person would go to this much trouble over a stupid sock, but no one had. I went home in defeat, my baby’s one foot a little colder and me, angry about the sock and angry at my anger about the sock.
Why did I care? It wasn’t the sock–the mary jane socks had actually come in a 3-pack, and I had two other complete pairs at home. Blue’s not even my favorite color. The sock was more of a message, a spitball from the universe, landing on my forehead and reminding me that, even though parents are supposed to anticipate and control everything, sometimes you can’t do a damn thing about anything.
The first thing a woman will hear when she gets pregnant is, “It’s not about you anymore.” This statement is always accompanied by an elbow poke and a wink, as though your selfish ways are stuff of legend and, like a junkie kicking the bad stuff, you’ll have to rehabilitate yourself in order to learn how to be caring and selfless and decent. Aside from the judgmentalness and overt sexism that this statement exudes (I’ve never in my life heard anyone say this to an expectant father), it is a flat out lie. Motherhood pins a woman under a microscope like no other endeavor, save perhaps appearing on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Once the egg is fertilized, it is solely about you: what you eat, how much you gain, are you stressed, are you exercising enough. And when the baby comes out the focus is even sharper: did you dress her warmly, are you reading to her enough, have you been giving her tummy time, are your breasts producing enough milk–the demands are endless and so must be your patience. Patience, not always for your child, but for the friends, relatives, and complete strangers that question you, assuming by default, that you are an imbecile.
As a mother you’re tasked with not only keeping your child alive (no small feat when they learn how funny it is to see you scream and run when they dash toward a busy street), but making her flourish in the Aristotelian sense of the word–imbuing her with virtues so she can grow up to have a meaningful life and not waste her time scouring Gap Kids for a lost sock. This much pressure can make you crazy. Why else would apartment-dwelling parents, sleeping ten feet from their newborn, install a video monitor in their child’s crib? Because what if–that’s why. (“What if” may be one of the most harmful concepts ever to entered the popular conscious, but that’s a topic for another day.) The pressure can also make you power drunk, giving you a false belief that not only must you control the universe, but that you can.
SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is a terror that stalks all new parents. The idea that you could walk into your child’s room and find them unresponsive is the cruelest vision that replays in your head throughout your child’s infancy. Doctors have made monumental strides over the last thirty years in their recommendations to parents about how to guard against SIDS, and correspondingly, a baby safety industry has grown to sell parents items that may assist them in following doctors’ orders. But, beneficial and well-intentioned as these products may seem, the ugly side of them is that there’s an implicit message that if parents don’t buy them, they’re risking their child’s life. So parents buy them. I did, as did my friends. A girlfriend told me about a nursery thermometer she was given that would beep if the room’s ambient temperature fell outside a prescribed band. She came to fear the dreaded beep (and it would beep, apparently, at least once a day), signalling that her baby could die because she had failed to adequately heat or cool the room.
Given the amount of products you can buy, and the amount of research you can do, and the data that you can collect (did you know there’s a Fitbit for babies? You thought analyzing the color of your baby’s stool was fun? Now you can get a live feed of your child’s heart rate when you’re in the shower!) parents are given a false sense of control, that they can stave off tragedy or even mild discomfort with another amazing product.
And when you are lulled into the belief that you can control the world, you begin to see your occasional failings through a much harsher lens, outliers that should have been prevented, Six Sigma-like, in your managed environment. Suddenly a missing sock stands in for all the ways in which you have failed and will fail. The sock is your lapsed attention while you pay for groceries and your daughter sneaks out the open door and into the parking lot; it is the cup of hot coffee you thoughtlessly left on the kitchen counter when the phone rang and scalds your child’s hand as they tip it over. The sock is everything because your child is everything and you know how fragile and fleeting the whole arrangement is. This is why you remember all the missing socks and still feel that somehow you’d be a better mother if only you’d seen them fall.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James is a stay-at-home mother of two in Oakland. Before she was a full-time diaper changer, she was a waitress, a pollster, an opera singer, and a fundraiser. Her writing has previously appeared in The Bold Italic.