One of life’s great pleasures is having our expectations exceeded. And of all the unexpected pleasures life gives us, perhaps none is greater than becoming a parent. For no matter how much we know we will love our children, the actual experience of loving them is almost beyond words. With a heady cocktail of inexperience and overconfidence I thought I knew what parenthood beheld. I thought I had my mind wrapped around motherhood and had realistic expectations of what was to come. Of course, I had no idea.
Being a parent is having a front row seat in the theatre of someone else’s life. It is a chance to witness the entire arc of a life from the first breath, to that first awkward day of middle school, to the moment we hit the replay button and our children have children. For me it has been an unmatched and unprecedented opportunity to reflect deeply and in living color on my own life.
Being a parent has allowed me to be a child again. My childhood was simple and middle class, the stuff the 1960s and 70s were made of. My husband’s was much more austere in a country and family with far less. Yet I will be eternally grateful to our sons for allowing us to experience childhood all over again with them. From the first time they laughed at Pat the Bunny to the day they stood in front of It’s a Small World jumping up and down and begging to go on the ride for a third time, to the afternoon they drove away with their brand new drivers licenses, I have felt immersed in every step of their childhood. We identify with our children, critics say we over identify, but for me this has meant reliving childhood, but better.
By having a child I learned what kind of stuff I was made of. I thought I had faced challenges with a tough school, a tough job, life overseas…child’s play, so to speak. The toughest job, bar none, is parenthood. Children push us to the emotional edge, in good ways and bad and sometimes to the physical edge as well. The closest I came was at 4:00 am one morning when I had been up for twenty-one hours and was holding my infant who would not sleep. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, “You know what? Yes. You! You are going to be an only child. You behave like this and you are getting no brothers or sisters. An only child, do you hear me!” It was the worst threat my deranged mind could think of and my husband, who had long since made his way to the couch, had the good sense to switch places with me. My next son was born ten months later.
I knew that my husband and I would love being parents. We are both eldest children and had long shifts of caring for younger siblings, but I could never have fathomed how much we would love sharing this experience. We had the same career, we could talk for hours about our friends and our work and our aspirations. We could talk about books and our upbringing, about things we hoped to learn and things we hoped to forget, but nothing has or ever will come close to the shared passion for our children. He is the one person on the planet that I cannot bore with constant talk of how wonderful I think my kids are, there is no level of minutiae (well, he got a B+ on the essay part, it would have been an A- but the teacher…) that I can sink to in discussing our offspring that will lose his interest.
Parenthood begins with showing our children the world, but it is not long before they return the favor. I knew I would be a teacher. I never imagined how quickly I would become a student. I have learned about glass, pre-World War II aircraft and Tim Tebow. I am up on current music and the standings in the English Premier Soccer League. But I am a visitor to these worlds, and inhabit them because my children are there and when their interests and lives move on, so will mine, all the wiser for it. Later still our children literally take us places, as we move them into summer camp cabins or college dorm rooms, their first apartments or back into our homes. We take them places for a few years, they take us places for the rest of our lives and at every step we learn something.
Some of this learning will not be good. When they get sick we will study everything about their ailment. When they have trouble learning we master everything about their difficulty and when they get caught speeding, drinking or lying we must search for the fine line that runs between how much to help and how much to punish. We will be wiser, but sometimes painfully wiser.
There is a feeling of exhilaration as they accomplish something that we know for all the world is not within our grasp. It is the thrill of seeing them swim faster than we know we ever could, shoot a basket we never would have made or face an unfamiliar social setting with poise and confidence that we can only dream about. It is the moment when they appear in their prom dress or tux and we can feel ourselves so young and beautiful again, if just for a moment. They are not us, but we will never enjoy another’s triumph and feel it so keenly.
I was pretending to be an adult until the moment my eldest was born and I knew it was time to stop pretending. My husband and I may have had careers, a car and an apartment but as we were beholden to no one, at times our early marriage felt like an extension of a long luxurious adolescence that no one was in a hurry to push us out of. One of the truly unexpected joys was realizing that, as the nurses at the hospital waved goodbye and I carried my newborn out to the car, I was an adult, a mother and that we would be alright. I have my children to thank for making me grow up.
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