on being a parent
my annual mother's day essay
[I have posted this before on various sites, and instead of writing a new post for mother’s day that would just be similar to this one, I am revisiting this one. It’s one of my personal favorite essays. Happy mother’s day to all the moms, and like-a-moms, and peace to those for whom this is a difficult day]
My defining moment as a parent came in 1994, when my son was 18 months old. I was standing in the cold, bare hallway of a hospital, listening to my child wail and scream from behind a closed door. He was getting a spinal tap and I swear the needle they were using was larger than he was. They wouldn’t let me in the room. It was 1am and I stood in the hallway, pacing and crying and listening. Suddenly the crying stopped. I panicked, thinking they had done something terrible to my child. I ran down the hallway and looked in the tiny window on the door. A nurse was holding my baby, soothing him, rocking him and singing to him. He was cradled in her arms, wearing nothing but a diaper and a scowl. As she rocked him, the scowl turned to a half grin and he fell asleep, his face pressed against her chest.
It was then I realized a number of things, mostly this; that I could not always make it all better. Sometimes, someone else besides mommy would be there for my kids, wiping their spills and putting band-aids on their knees.
Along the way — and I’ve been a parent for over 30 years — I’ve learned many other things:
That this would not be the last time that I felt that sense of helplessness with one of my children. Parenthood is rife with helplessness. From infancy to adulthood, there are moments where you can only stand by as your children combat broken hearts, broken dreams and failed attempts. And all you can do is hug them and listen to them and know in your aching heart that they are learning how to cope.
That you feel every single things your kids feel. When they are getting a shot, you feel that pain in your arm. When they fall off their bike, you feel their scrapes. Your heart sinks after every missed free throw and strike out, after every break up and denied college application.
That you can only protect them so much. You can keep them from crossing busy streets and make them wear helmets and seatbelts. You can get them immunizations and make sure they wear their hat when it’s cold out. You can protect them physically, but you cannot put a helmet or a seat belt on their hearts and souls. You can only hold their hand and offer them worn out cliches about time healing all wounds and let them learn lessons from their experiences — most importantly, the lesson that you will not always be able to protect them, save them or bail them out of trouble. That they will have to learn how to handle life on their own. And that’s much harder for you than it is for them because your instinct is to do for them, but the right thing is to let them do for themselves, even if they fail.
That no matter what, no matter what trouble they cause you, what backtalk they give you, you will love them fiercely and unconditionally and forever. That you will still walk into their bedroom at 1am just to make sure they are breathing, even when they are in their teens. And you will look at their faces and listen to their soft dreaming sighs and your heart will fill with smiles.
That there will be times, many times, when you hate being a parent. When you can’t make it all better and when there is too much whining and not enough cooperation and lost homework and messy rooms. I don’t think there’s a mother or father out there who hasn’t at least once said “Why did I do this?” It usually comes at a time when you are throwing your hands up in desperation, letting out that deep, resigned sigh that embodies your exhaustion, frustration, aggravation and worry. And that it’s perfectly ok to feel that way sometimes.
That being a parent means being in a semi-constant state of anxiety; no matter what stage in life your children are at, there is going be a bundle of worries attached to it. Some of those worries are the staples of parenting; is my kid developing properly? Is she saying the right amount of words for her age? Is he playing well with others? Is he doing ok in school? Is he healthy? Is she succumbing to peer pressure? Is he going to make the team? When you are new to parenting, you think the anxiety and worries disappear as your kids get older. When they can finally articulate what’s hurting them, when they can fend for themselves a bit, when you no longer have to worry about baby proofing everywhere you go, it all gets better, right? No. Because then you worry about their future, and how you’re going to pay for college, and they’ll start driving and you’ll stay up late because you can’t sleep until you hear the car pull in the driveway.
That you will always question yourself. That the culmination of every move you have made as a parent can fit into this one question: “Did I do it wrong?”
That sometimes that answer is going to be yes. Yes, you did it wrong. There are no perfect mothers, no perfect fathers. We all make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are small and insignificant. Sometimes they loom large and change the direction of lives. Either way, it’s a bit hard to admit you made those mistakes. It’s hard to stand back and say, yes, I did it wrong. And then realize you can’t always make it right.
That there will be plenty of days when you wonder if I weren’t mean to be a parent, if you weren’t really cut out for this life.
That despite all the anxieties and worries and misgivings, there’s a lot of joy and love to be had in being a parent. There’s a lot of joy and love to give, too. I think that is why most of us have kids.
That there is no one set of rules you can follow for being a good parent. That every family is different, every child is different and all the advice in the world from other well meaning parents and experts may not work for you. That you have to learn as you go and yes, you will make mistakes in the process.
That your children are a reflection of you but they are not you. They need grow and learn and figure out who they are and what and that may not be what you want for them. You have to let them go at some point. You have to let go of whatever fantasies you had about their lives when they were just babies and let them find their own way.
There’s no handbook that comes with being a parent. There’s a basic set of innate guidelines that everyone knows to follow: Feed them. Clothe them. Make sure they don’t stick their fingers in electrical outlets. Love them.