Parenting: what if it’s not so hard?

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Last week, while reading student essays, I came across a sentence that shifted something in me. It was a Tuesday morning, and I sat in my dark and quiet office. This essay told the story of a mother-son relationship, a relationship that had nearly dissolved once the author reached adulthood. It was a beautiful essay, and in the second paragraph the author explained that his teenage years had been filled with small transgressions and punishments, but none of these conflicts had ever threatened his bond with his mother because she had made it so undeniably clear that she loved him. “Parenting is not hard,” he wrote. The knowledge of her love was all he’d ever needed.

Parenting is not hard. That was the sentence. I underlined it in purple pen.

All week that sentence kept replaying itself in my brain, often during parenting moments that were, indeed, hard, like when Stump refused to get in his car seat at the end of a long day, or when Smoke was crying with disappointment because a friend had canceled a play date. “Parenting is not hard,” I kept telling myself, even though of course I know it is. The sentence was kind of like a flat round stone you might find on the beach, one that you can turn over in your hand and examine at different angles. Each time you hold it to the light, you might spot a new detail: a fleck of gold or a thin stripe of green.

Parenting is not hard. Each time that sentence plays inside my mind, I slow down a little bit. I breathe a little deeper. I enjoy my kids for who they are. I enjoy myself with them. My world expands. That sentence offers me distance from all the minutiae I worry about daily: the rash on Stump’s bottom and the fact that he still insists on pooping in a diaper; the fact that Smoke has giant grown-up teeth coming in behind the baby teeth and he refuses to wiggle them loose; that fact that I can get my kids to eat fruit but not vegetables.

Parenting is so hard that sometimes it is impossible to do it well. I’m pretty sure that this is true not only for me but for any parent who ever lived. No matter how much patience I cultivate, now matter how many strategies I try, I am not always the person I want to be. I harp; I complain; I storm out of rooms.

And so, it’s nice to shift perspectives, to turn the stone around. Parenting is not hard. All of those things I’m losing sleep over may not be the things that matter very much. They won’t be the things my kids remember in fifteen years. Maybe Smoke will remember that I let him stay up way too late every night so we could read together on the couch. Maybe Stump will remember that I let him cling to me in the mornings, that I carried him around the house with his arms around my neck, his long legs dangling from my hip. Or maybe none of us will remember any of these details, but instead it will all just be a blur of bodies sharing space.

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Earlier this week, when I picked Smoke up from school, I told him that I would have to leave after dinner to go to a parenting class.

“Is it about learning not to yell?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Is that something you want me to work on?”

“That’s the only thing,” he told me. “Everything else you do I like.”

The car was quiet for a moment as Smoke continued to think. “Actually,” he said, “I don’t  care if you yell. Can you just stay home tonight?”

“I already paid for the class,” I told him. “And also,” I explained, “I wish I knew how to get your brother to stop hitting people.”

Smoke considered this. “Okay,” he agreed.

I parked the car in the driveway, and began the process of unpacking the car, of feeding the dogs, of trying to assemble a meal that my children would eat so that I could leave the house again and learn to be a better parent. But I already knew that Smoke had offered the better lesson: Just love me. Do what you do. Don’t go to the class. Stay home.

Last Week: a list of small failures

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Last week I learned that April is the month that all of the area preschools fill all their empty spots for fall. This was inconvenient. My town has a bunch of small home-based preschool programs, and I had always imagined moving Stump away from his from his large daycare center and into one of these setting when the time was right. I had thought we’d simply know when that time had arrived and the right spot in the right place would present itself to us. Clearly I had failed to think it through. We had already missed all the open houses. We had missed the moment that enrollment opens and parents clamor for spots and lay down their money. We were competing now for arbitrary openings left here and there, or hoping to be first on a waitlist. This was failure #1.

Kellie was working in another state when this search began. I had to rearrange my days to schedule phone calls and visits until there were no moments left for dog walks or staring out the window. The hustle of running from appointment to work to appointment to dinner and dishes and bedtime amplified my super-limitations.

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I failed to notice an appointment in my calendar, and so I double booked.

I failed to make Stump pee before bedtime, and so he wet the bed in the middle of the night.

I had a nightmare about missing work, and then I risked missing work when I failed to get Stump to daycare on time.

The cutoff for morning drop-off is 10:30, and we had scheduled a visit at a nearby preschool at 9:30. Stump had clung to me for the first fifteen minutes while we watched kids play with play-dough and rolling pins at the table. He got up in time to rifle through a bin of seashells and two four-year-old girls accosted him when we broke one. “Oh that’s fine,” the care provider told them. “I don’t know why they’re being like that,” she whispered. “The shells always break. That’s what they’re there for.” I chose not to share with her that breaking stuff is one of Stump’s major skills. At 10:10 I said “We’d better get going,” and then time did one of those tricks where it bends in a loop. I asked the provider one last question and her answer lasted a minute or two. Then we discovered that Stump had wandered into the kitchen and found the open door to the basement. On the way to the car, Stump wanted to explore the yard which had a small play shed with a pirate flag and a row of logs for jumping on.

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Preschool Bunny who I failed to discuss this post.

By the time I got Stump in the car it was 10:24. We didn’t have far to go, and so the whole way there I was optimistic that 10:30 was more of a soft guideline than a hard deadline. We made it to Stump’s classroom at 10:34 and for once Stump was immediately happy to be there. Just as he was unzipping his coat, his teacher approached me and whispered that she had to follow policy. No 10:34 drop-offs. I didn’t know whether to feel mad or ashamed or sorry, and so I felt all three at once, and those feelings battled in the pit of my stomach. I whisked Stump away, his coat half-unzipped and he asked me why we were leaving. “Because Mommy was too late,” I told him. “Why are we leaving?” he asked again, not understanding.

Kellie had arrived home on a plane the night before and luckily-unluckily she was home for the day, caring for Smoke who was running a fever. I knew she’d been planning to clean the house, to sweep up all the crumbs and wipe all the sticky spots and fold all the laundry from the ten days she’d been gone. I knew that with Stump home now she’d be doing very little besides taking care of Stump. When I came through the door with him, I thought I perceived a look. “What do you want me to do?” I hollered before I scrambled back to the minivan and drove back to work.

In the grocery store, I swiped the debit card before my total had loaded and the clerk had to remind me to wait for the prompt. This happens every time. Twenty years of my life I’ve been paying with debit cards and still I can’t seem to get it right.

At home after dark, I knew I needed sleep but instead I opened my laptop and kept scrolling and clicking, scrolling and clicking, aware every single moment that I should be in bed, but too tired to summon the willpower to remove my eyes from the screen.

On Friday morning I failed to control my son at yet another preschool visit. The teacher was so quiet and collected and when she needed my son to do something, she spoke exclusively in “You may” statements, as in: “You may take off your shoes now,” “You may step away from the computer,” “You may help clean up these blocks.” This had the effect of paralyzing my own parenting because I do not speak in “You may” statements—I speak in “Hey” statements as in “Hey! Get away from there!” or “Hey! Clean that up!”—and so anything I said to my child sounded like yelling. And so, when Stump picked up a piece of plastic corn and pretended it was a gun, I said nothing and hoped the teacher would not be too offended. And when Stump dismantled a wall of cardboard blocks and then began to roll around in the mess he made, I said simply, “I think we will need to get going soon,” instead of “Oh my god! You are out of control, dude!”

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Once I had dropped Stump off at daycare and arrived at work—on time this time—I looked in the mirror and my reflection said it all. The night before I had fallen asleep with wet hair, and in the morning I had tried to tame it by brushing it into a ponytail. I had thought it was more or less safely contained. But no, my hair was frizzing and falling out the elastic in random pieces, some of them wavy and some of them straight. I was not passably put together, not even for a Friday.

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The thing about my hair is that it often tells the truth about me. Even on my best days, I have a wild cowlick that rises up in the back an announces to the world that I can never fully contain myself.  I’ve said this before, but during weeks like this I think of my fellow humans, especially the ones who manage to walk through the world in lipstick and high heels. For a while I consider how I might leak out through the edges a little less. Could I pull myself together if I tried? I think it would take a lot of effort and expense. It would require supplies like hairspray and depilatory creams. It would require personal trainers and professional organizers. And still, at the end of the day I would probably come home and discover that I had spinach in my teeth or that I had put my underwear on inside-out. So I think I’ll keep doing it this way, where I’m visibly frazzled and imperfect, where the emotional energy I have at the end of the day goes into accepting that imperfection rather than trying to will it away.