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.

The Problem with Mother’s Day

Before we actually had kids, I assumed I could talk Kellie into conceding Mother’s Day to me. I’d give her Father’s Day, and I assumed she’d be fine with that. After all, I was the one who would be growing these babies inside my body, birthing them, and breastfeeding them at all hours of the day and night. It seemed only reasonable that I’d want that day to myself.

When Stump's daycare class made Father's Day gifts last year, this is what they did for us.
When Stump’s daycare class made Father’s Day gifts last year, this is what they did for us.

The problem that I didn’t anticipate, and maybe I should have seen this coming, is that Kellie is not a father. She’s pretty clear about that. She hates it when people call her “sir” by accident. And, though she pretends not to mind so much, I know it bothers her when strangers look at our family, try to quickly assess her role, and conclude that she must be the aunt or the grandma. Just last week she brought both Smoke and Stump to Costco and upon her return she reported that someone had commented in her direction, “Oh, the babysitter’s taking the kids on some errands.” As someone who is rarely acknowledged as a mom when out in public, she’d like to claim the title when she can.

So, my problem with Mother’s Day is that I have to share it. But I’ve come to see that this is the problem for all of us. In the years that I had wanted to become a mother, I had thought of Mother’s Day as a kind of extra birthday, a day where I would get to be the center of my own universe, to eat breakfast in bed, to open cards, to receive flowers. But, competition with Kellie aside, there are plenty of other mothers in my life—more than I can adequately celebrate in a single day.

There’s my own mom who, when she comes to visit spends at least eighty percent of her time cross-legged on the living room floor reading books and making block towers with the boys. There’s Grandma Jerry who bakes cookies just for Smoke every time he comes to her house. And then there are the aunts in our lives—sisters and sisters-in-law who nurture my kids while raising kids of their own. I haven’t even started on the other mothers in my life, the friends who keep me sane by hosting Smoke for play dates or listening to me complain. Instead of the center of the universe, I am just one of many planets.

This is Smoke's Aunt Cindi teaching him to ski.
This is Smoke’s Aunt Cindi teaching him to ski.

This is why today it dawned on me: I should take Father’s Day. It won’t be hard to do. The week before, I’ll tell Kellie that I don’t expect a card, but flowers would be nice, and she and the boys are free to bake me a German chocolate cake while I lie outside in the hammock and read.   I’ll mention to friends or maybe even post it on Facebook that I count as a father on Father’s Day. I’m guessing that people will go for it. Sure there are people who go fishing with their dad or take him out for sushi, but Father’s day strikes me as a roomier holiday, one where some of my friends might be scratching their chins thinking, “I already called my dad, now what do I do?…Oh yeah, bring Jenn a beer.”

Kellie turned down a pretty good offer. It’s taken me six years to figure that out.