Let’s get down to brass tacks.
Being a good parent is like living in a glass case of emotion. Stuffed with children. Where you still have to make lunch.
Now, don’t misunderstand, I love being a mom. It’s the most privileged job I’ve ever held, raising little babes into fully functioning adults (or semi-functioning almost-seven-year-olds, so far). The giggles, the smiles, the whispers of “I love you” from little half-asleep voices. Memories of summer days and snow days. Reading bedtime stories snuggled under warm blankets. Watching the pen marks move a little higher on their growth charts. Seeing them brave the stage, the field, the spelling bee—it’s all part of the joy that comes with that little bundle.
But it’s not always rainbows and buttercups, is it? I’ve never strolled down Easy Street as a parent. It’s doggedly hard. So hard sometimes that my soul is weary, my ugly cry is potent, and I’m curled in a fetal position on the floor.
And while being a good parent comes with hardships that will decidedly vary, I think there are several aspects of the “oh-mah-gosh-parenting-is-so-hard” philosophy that we can all understand as we’re stress-eating bags of Dove chocolate.
1. The Drudgery
The other day, I stared at a trail of tiny ants that was winding its way around discarded sidewalk chalk and stale Fritos forgotten on my garage floor. How do they do it? I thought as I hoisted my sleeping four-year-old onto my shoulder and grabbed the bag of sponges and mouse traps from the floor of my exhausted minivan. How do they keep going? Down the same paths in search of the same objective, day after day.
Sometimes as a parent, I feel like an ant. I think we could commiserate together over a warm cup of tea, my ant friends and me.
Parenthood is often a tale of drudgeries: treading the same redundant trail; performing demanding and exhausting tasks; carrying weight heavier than what is comfortable. The meal-making, the laundry-washing/folding/put-awaying, the cleaning, the shuttling, the volunteering. Daily, weekly, monthly. This facet of parenthood is often discouraging and difficult to maintain.
However, slowly, even imperceptibly, habits begin to form. Daily routines take hold. Children begin to (sometimes willingly) participate in household upkeep and chores. And my shoulders begin to feel a small relief as they are lightened a little over time, in small doses. Subtly.
But I’m pretty sure the laundry never ends.
2. We Don’t Understand Each Other
I was on the phone with my deployed husband recently, whining and blah-blah-blahing about my list of gripes. He listened patiently as I spilled the beans about how frustrated I was at my children who KNOW better than to drop their clothes all over their floor, who wouldn’t brush their teeth the FIRST time I asked, who had absolutely NO sense of urgency when it came time to rushing out the door for school in the morning. And where’s the common sense? You saw the cup that fell on the floor? Why didn’t you pick it up? Why MUST you wipe toothpaste all over the mirror and splash three inches of water all over the floor? Why is it so hard to be a good parent?
“Because,” my dear, adult-ier husband reminded me, “our children are still, well, children.”
In the midst of the expectations and standards and learning and teaching (which are all good things), I think I forgot.
I forgot that I have three little pirates lost in the stormy seas until a whale jumped out of the water to save them, hence the bathroom flood. I forgot that just behind the mirror was a spooky witch trying to get out, and toothpaste was the only way to keep her trapped because Bubble Mint was NOT her favorite flavor.
And I’m bound to forget again. They’re still developing logic and communication skills. Learning to understand how this big world around them works. I’m certainly not a perfect perfect; why should I expect my children to be perfect kids? In the gap that spans age and experience, sometimes I forget to understand.
3. There Are No More Simple Tasks
I very rarely get embarrassed.
With that said, my children’s very loud vocal recital/dance combo of their original work “We’re the Hot Dog Family” in the middle of the meat section (then the frozen section, then the produce section) at the grocery store last week gave me just enough mortification to respond to the onlookers’ stares with, “No, those are not my children.”
Grocery shopping has turned into an ordeal. Pack a picnic, bring a change of clothes. No more running in and out, no more perusing the clearance section at Target without three children clamoring for a ride, for popcorn, for some inane plush television character. One child will almost always get hurt while another gets lost, and finally, I’m in such a state of despair that I leave the cart full of stuff and walk out of the store with three crying children at my heels. Sorry, big box store employee. At least you get paid for your job.
And speaking of food, oh, the food! Poor, wasted food. Meals are no longer simple to prepare. I can barely wrap my mind around the fact that, finally, NOW my child loves bean and cheese burritos…oh wait, now she doesn’t. No, wait. And the huffs I hear when I say, “Uh, well, I’m not making you anything else” are drowned out by the shout of “I DIDN’T WANT JELLY ON MY SANDWICH!” I feel like the Beast (in more ways than one) in the iconic Beauty and the Beast: “THEN GO AHEAD AND STAAAAAAARVE!!!!” Is this being a good parent?
And, on the same note, I’m not even going to tell you when the last time was that I went to the bathroom by myself.
Simple tasks, my friends. Gone.
4. Not Knowing All the Answers
When I was little, I knew that my dad knew everything. He knew about cold fusion, about alien landings. He knew politics, religion, bread-making, cars. He knew it all. And I felt safe in the fact that if my dad knew it, everything was going to be okay. (And, yes, I was crushed to discover later in life that the guy was just MAKING STUFF UP. Thanks, DAD.)
Is this some kind of key to being a good parent?
We are supposed to know the answers or, at the very least, pretend we do. Our children look to us with confidence, with the assumption that with age comes wisdom, with experience comes answers.
But what if I don’t know?
The questions are relentless. When should we take our kids into the doctor? Do I know as much as I can about vaccinations, school lunch, riding bikes around the neighborhood? “Why are some kids bullies, Mom?” “Why do I go to a new school this year, Mom?” “Why don’t we have a nicer car, Mom?”
I spend a lot of long, sleepless nights, kiddo, wondering how to answer your questions. Am I brave enough to admit that I don’t know all the answers?
5. The Concerns and Fears
My oldest daughter started first grade this year.
She was a little nervous. New school, new friends, new experiences.
I was terrified. A mess. A scrolling marquee of potential could-go-wrongs flashed neon in my mind’s eye. What if kids are mean to her? What if she’s mean to the other kids? What if she doesn’t know how to go through the lunch line? Will she make friends or play alone on the playground at recess?
Our hearts, they’re both stout and fragile simultaneously. In our quests to raise stalwart and responsible children, we want to send them off into the scary world with a “Be the change you wish to see” mentality. Go and do! But, wait! Be brave! And make good choices! I’ll be here for you always, when you succeed and when you fail.
But, oh, can we watch that? We have to do something! Protect them. Scoop them back into our arms and bring them home to our coop underneath our protective wings.
But we stand arms-width away as our babes, our children, our very best begin to walk. Feebly at first, but then stronger. Faster. Then they’re running. They take off, leaving their fears in the dust for me to collect and hold in my pockets as my own.
So why do we do it if it’s so hard? So heart-breakingly, terrifyingly hard.
It’s because of those giggles. Those smiles. Those whispers of “I love you” from little half-asleep voices. The bond of irrevocable love is the reason we fear, we fret, we question, we pray, we give it all to those little hands. Those little bundles of overwhelming joy. A religious leader once said, “The joy in [parent]hood comes in moments. There will be hard times and frustrating times, but amid the challenges there are shining moments of joy and satisfaction.” The bursts of overwhelming happiness, fulfillment, and pride will outweigh the heartache, the hardships, the turbulence.
We learn, we grow, we change. Because of them. They change us.
So bring on the bathroom floods, the mealtime meltdowns, the unknown (I mean, within reason).
For more on being a good parent, especially during deployment.