How To Be A Parent

babyA young mother-to-be said with despair, “Only three weeks left to figure out how to be a mother!”

Oh, sweet new momma, I am still trying to figure that out fifteen years later.  I don’t mean to scare you, but this is the truth.

You will find your groove, yes, and figure out the basics like which type of diapers you prefer and where to find the sales on baby food.  But even if you become a mother twenty times over, uncertainty will remain.  Because just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the rules change, or the kids change, or you change.

You will make more mistakes than you’re willing to count.  Like, for instance, letting your six year old eat the party favor that you swear is white chocolate but is actually decorative soap.  (Yes, I did that.)

You will realize after several hundred of these foibles that a sense of humor is an essential item to pack in the diaper bag.  And it is precisely these times that earn you a notch in your parenting stick.  These falls from grace won’t guarantee that your next act will be seamless, but they will remind you that you can do the hard job of parenting AND live to tell about it.

If you are a ‘good’ parent you will never enjoy the smugness of certainty.  You will doubt every major and some minor decisions, feel guilty about others, and learn something new every day.  Early on you may learn that you shouldn’t play airplane with a baby who has just eaten lest he spit up in your mouth.  (That was husband, not me.)  Later, you may learn that you are not above ditching your child in a grocery store when she shouts, “Why is that lady so fat?”  And you will be anointed with humility when your little one declares aloud in church, “Mommy, you tooted!”

I wish my gift to you could be a key to the Parenting Answer Box.  But in my heart I know that if there was such a key to be given, it would ruin the whole experience.  If you had all the answers and didn’t crumble in despair once in a while, you’d never know the sweetness of vulnerability.  Just when you think you can’t go on, your little one reaches up to wipe a tear from your eye and says, “I wuv you, Mommy.  Pwease don’t cry.”  Renewed afresh, your heart fills up and you rise from the ashes.

When we stop banging on the door of certainty, demanding reprieve from the worry and fear of parenting, we realize that we are not alone.  Looking around, we find ourselves amidst the stories of millions of parents before us who stood exactly where we now stand, unable to break through the barrier of doubt.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the child-rearing rainbow.  And the treasure is not what you think it is.  It is not an honors student who never got arrested, never sassed his parents, and never skipped out on chores.  Nor is it a perfect parenting record that is envied by your fellow retirees.  The gift is simply this:  THE EXPERIENCE – good, bad, or otherwise.

Some day you will look back and wonder how you survived.  You will also continue to question your choices long after the children are grown.  But with any luck, you will have learned at least, to abandon blame and shame in favor of forgiveness and gratitude.  You dared to take on the title of parent in the name of love, despite your humongous fears, and did the best you could.

City Girl In The Country

On this episode of City Girl In the Country, the Dunham Family built their mother a garden for Mother’s Day.  When I, Mother, arrived home and saw this (without the descriptive sign),

I thought perhaps husband had bought a tiger.  He lovingly described his intention, “You’ve always wanted a garden.  I thought it would be a great present.”  And it was.  The most thoughtful and ambitious one yet.  And yes, I’ve long held images of me preparing a wholesome organic dinner with fresh ingredients from a garden planted, cared for, and harvested by yours truly.  But dreams and reality are very different beasts.  What  do I, a vested city girl, know about gardening?

Stifling my panic and premature thoughts of failure, I smiled at husband through clenched teeth.  Poor thing, he looked so enthusiastic and optimistic.

He may have conveniently forgotten my history of city-girl-itis.  There was the time nature boy husband was away on business and I found the ugliest little animal swimming in our pool.  With its matted grey hair, absent eyes, and what appeared to be a ‘sucker’ for a nose, it resembled a mutated mouse.

Convinced that this unfortunate creature had been exposed to hazardous chemicals hidden in my yard, I  scooped it into a bucket and marched it to the bus stop for show and tell. A country neighbor – without the courtesy to stifle his amusement – set me straight, informing me that this mutation was, in fact, a common mole.  Scraping for self-respect, I argued that it didn’t look like any cute picture of a mole I’d seen in my childhood books.  And we most certainly did not see these in the city.  Hmph.

Then there’s the time husband took me to Maine for the first time.  We sat on a deck lined with red flowers.  A hummingbird (an exotic bird by city-girl standards) appeared from nowhere and stopped to suck nectar from the flowers.  I exclaimed, “Oh, look how cute!  She thinks the flowers are a hummingbird feeder!”

Several seconds of stunned silence followed when husband realized that his Summa Cum Laude wife was serious.  Gently and slowly, as if I might be having a stroke, husband asked, “Honey, which do you think came first?  Hummingbird feeders or  flowers?”  Recognizing my grave error, I chuckled nervously and left to make a sandwich.  You can take the girl out of the city, but….

It’s been several years since I’ve moved out of the city.  I now understand the difference between septic and sewer and why we have no well water when the electricity goes out.  (Which it does on a ridiculously predictable basis in the woods.) Yes, I’ve adjusted to the country  life.  But the city is in me.  Gardening is not.

I don’t think husband should have been shocked when he had to instruct me to cut the broccoli – which had grown without my help, by the way.  (I love a self-sufficient plant.)  When I argued that I couldn’t find a pair of scissors, husband retrieved the kitchen shears and said, “Use these.”  Too quickly I protested, “But those are for food.”  Husband shouted, “AND WHAT DO YOU THINK BROCCOLI IS?!”  Oops.

Husband carried on for a long while about city brains and packaged food and grocery stores and cold eggs.  Geez, it’s not like I’ve ever claimed to be Farmer Brown or anything.  Cut me some slack.

Out I went in search of broccoli.  And I returned, proudly, with this:

My very first crop.  (Pause for admiration.)

I held that broccoli high, like a trophy.  I couldn’t have been more proud if it had sprouted from my own ears.  I’ve incubated, birthed, and raised three children, but this…the growing of a vegetable…this is a miracle.

After admiring the broccoli as a centerpiece in the kitchen all day, I did eventually cook it.  Eight year old daughter deemed it ‘Not as good as store-bought.  But you’ll get there, Mom.’

Yes, darling, I think I will.  There’s hope for me yet.  Though I doubt the producers of this life of mine will be cancelling the longest-running sit-com in history any time soon.

Brain Shrinkage

I messed up royally – again.  Before I tell you what I did, I want you to understand why it’s a big deal.

If there’s one quality my mother embodies, it’s dependability, which is closely related to her extreme organizational skills.  I don’t exaggerate when I say that Mom has never lost anything or failed to do what she says she’ll do.  Her linear, and possibly photographic memory is backed up by an elaborate system of note-taking and filing.

Claiming to have inherited her affinity for organization myself would be disingenuous.  But, for what I lack in natural talent, I was trained to make up for in discipline.  I can chart with the best of them.  Or I could, until I had children.

Husband used to rib me about ‘pregnancy brain’ citing research theorizing that women’s brains shrink during pregnancy.  I went to great lengths to disprove the theory by covering up for my all-too-frequent memory lapses, which I secretly feared amounted to permanent brain damage.  As you know from recent blogs, my mind never did fully recover.

I remember clearly the day I decided to surrender to imperfection in the memory/organization departments.   I simply removed the mask of Utter Competence I had rented and declared myself a mere mortal – free to make mistakes andforgive myself without excuses.  That very month, I forgot to invite my daughter’s godmother – on my husband’s side – to a birthday party.  (It’s always worse when you mess up with the in-laws rather than your own kin.)  

My error registered as an immense transgression.  Shock waves shot through the family.  You’d have thought the sun forgot to rise by the way people reacted.

Determining not to let their disappointment scare me back into perfectionist tendencies, I simply said, “Oh, I forgot,’ and prayed really hard that would suffice.  Vaguely, I recalled something I read about ‘giving up perfect.’  The sage warning was, ‘When you stop being perfect, don’t expect it to be a popular decision.’   People were used to my dependability in these matters.  Well, they’d have to adjust because imperfect me was here to stay.

Further proving my committment to imperfection has been easier – and more enjoyable – than I could have imagined.  Aside from the occasional frustration it causes, I rather like imperfect me.  Of course, I do occasionally feel a bite of horror, like today when I was informed that I forgot to acknowledge my mother-in-law’s birthday (two weeks ago!)  Yes, it is my husband’s mother and he forgot too.  But then, men aren’t laden with the same expectations as women in this regard.  Ultimately, I take ownership.  After all, I am the one in charge of the fancy calendar.  How did I miss this?  It’s not like it’s a new entry!

I can’t be sure my mother-in-law forgives me this oversight, but truthfully, it doesn’t matter.  Harsh sounding, I know.  In defense, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my imperfection training, it’s that self-approval is more important than approval from others.  I am sorry for forgetting, but I cannot – will not – revert to perfectionism.  It hurts my head.  I choose, instead, to offer my soggy, over-saturated brain some compassion.  It can only do so much.

Years from now, this too will be forgotten.  It will be replaced by subsequent mistakes and hopefully, some triumphs as well.  I hope the scale will be balanced, so that I will be balanced too.

The Mind Plays Dirty, The Laundry is Clean

I’m in the business of thinking.  Positive thinking.  Both personally and professionally, I study, teach, and utilize the power of thoughts and words.  Yet still, my mind takes off like a dog in heat at the first scent of temptation.

At 19:00 hours, husband, anticipating the need to have sheets on the bed (he’s so clever), heads for the laundry basket full of clean sheets that was abandoned between the dryer and the bedroom earlier in the day.  It’s nowhere to be found.  We begin our repartee.  “I didn’t take the sheets.  They were right there.  Well I didn’t take them.  Where are they?” Given the witching hour and the Sunday night routine with three children, we quickly abandon our mystery for higher priorities.

Fast forward one hour.  I am knee deep in calendars, permission slips, and bills when 13 year old son casually enters with an announcement that the washing machine is broken.  Stuck actually, mid-cycle, and he needs to put his wash in lest he go to school naked in the morning.  With a hearty grunt and a few mumbled slurs, I begrudgingly head to the laundry closet, son in tow.  “Show me what you did!” I demand.  “Nothing,” he defends.  “I just…….”  Even louder now, I start accusing, “You opened the door mid-cycle?!  You’re supposed to press cancel and……”  There is no stopping me.  I ramble on with should have’s and could have’s and a variety of accusations and put-downs.

You see, I was exhausted, and my mind was racing.  Like the dog who breaks through the fence and runs like the wind down the street.  I was on fire with blame, picturing a very busy week ahead with too many scheduled activities, work obligations, and other stresses – without a washing machine! Perish the thought!

My inner dialogue went something like this, ‘How much will this cost?!  Why do I let my kids touch the washing machine?  He’s always breaking things.  Who do I call on a Sunday night?  Are there emergency washing machine people?  I don’t have time for this!’  In 30 seconds I had created an imaginary disaster of epic proportions.  Truly, I had a headache from how loud my mind was screaming in fear.

Wait, are those my sheets in the wash?  Where did those come from?  You, my son, put them in for me?  You didn’t know they were already clean and wanted to surprise me?  Before you did your own laundry?!

Long pause.  Make way for regret.

Still somewhat angry at the current predicament, but having paused long enough in my verbal and mental shouting to allow myself to think, I decide to unpulg the machine and hope it will reset.  It does, and I am able to complete the wash.

My son, bless his little heart, is impressed with my technical prowess – and relieved that his head is out of the guillotine.  I too, am relieved, but also horrified by my abominable response to a non-critical situation.  ‘Why did my emergency meter skyrocket?  Why did I let my mind run wild?  I know better than that.  I’m so ashamed.’

A quick chuckle escapes as I realize that even now, in the self-recrimination, my mind is playing dirty.  “End it!”  I hear the ‘other’ voice command.  “Put a leash on that wild dog and get control.”

I oblige and turn my focus to what really matters – my son.  I offer sincere apologies.  “I didn’t mean to yell.  It was a nice thing you did and very responsible.  I was just upset…..”  To which he replies, “I know, Mom.  I still love you.”

Thankfully, someone does, because I’m not lovin’ the me that showed up in the laundry closet tonight.  “Sit, girl. Good dog. Now stay!”

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