This blog was bound to come around to parenting at some point as my posts are always the result of some thought that gets stuck in my brain for so many days or weeks—or in this case, years—that the only way forward is to duel it out in my head, often while driving or doing dishes or lying awake at 3 a.m. until the idea comes into clearer shape through words. That doesn’t mean I solve it; writing is just a way of making more sense of something that doesn’t inherently make sense to me…which is a long way of saying that I’m writing about parenting not because I’ve figured it out, but because after doing it for over two decades, I‘m still struggling at the job.
What is parenting?
A responsibility? A reason to celebrate? A source for Instagram and Facebook posts?
A career? A part-time job? A reason to drink?
All of the above?
At its heart, parenting is the cultivation of a child into who he/she/they will become.
Farmers across the world cultivate crops. A thankless, tireless, devoted job that’s essential to life and yet most of us never give it any extended thought. If we did, we’d be stunned why anyone would choose such an endeavor. In a good season, crops can be ruined by multiple calamities; forces of nature, fate, genes and simple luck play an outsized role in production. When farmers do well, their produce is sent off for the benefit of other people, making it look like they spent a lot of time doing nothing. When they fail, there is recrimination and guilt, a lot of second-guessing, and a whole lot of other voices spewing blame.
The similarities between the two jobs are not lost on me.
But if farming is the hard work of raising crops, then parenting is the hard work of raising children; helping those small seeds of life given into our care mature into the vegetables and flowers and trees and shrubs and grass and nettles that populate our human world.
It’s not the same thing as “birthing” kids—let’s specify that. Although if someone had told me mid-partum, or worse, post-partum, that I’d just done the easy bit—when I felt so far out of my depth AND like I’d been run over by a tractor—I’m sure I would have cried even harder; completely overwhelmed by a task I had taken on in utter ignorance and wondering why anyone, anywhere thought childrearing was a good idea.
Because parenting isn’t the easy job of being able to say, “I brought this child into the world,” and being good with it. It’s not the bragging rights earned because something wonderful got placed in your hands; it’s not the sharing of only the glories of the job. If truth be told—or rather, if my truth of parenting be told—the essentials of the job are probably the things we tend NOT to talk about. The things we would never brag about. The times when our doubts are the only thing we’re sure of; when our kiddos are in pain or struggling and not only do we not have the answers, but our parenting ignorance might be at least partially at fault for how our kids are suffering in the first place.
Parenting is fraught with indecision. The bad decisions we regret. The waking up in the middle of the night, worrying, so that the next day, we can wake up and worry some more. It’s asking ourselves all the time if what we’re doing is right. If our advice, our rules, or the decisions we make for them are the right choices; and if they’re the wrong ones, wondering who will bear the consequences. Because mostly—and it’s a secret mostly for many of us—parenting is the shame of thinking we’re doing it all wrong. Not realizing that sometimes our shame bleeds over, onto our kids. Wondering if they’re wrong. As in, the wrong thing. Worrying that not only have we failed our job, but we’ve failed them, too.
And yet, if we’re doing the main job of parenting, we are—at the very least—being present, and in those moments of rest and quiet and attention, we’re seeing them. We’re hearing them, learning from them. The kind of learning that happens when we actively listen—even if it’s only after we’ve run out of things to say.
In those times, our greatest work is reflecting back to them what we’re hearing and seeing. Taking them seriously. Recognizing something big about the little People-In-Evolution before us. Appreciating their smallest ideas, their smallest independent decisions, their ‘unimportant characteristics’ that the rest of the world doesn’t see, or chooses to overlook and that make them exactly who they are.
That last bit of parenting might be the most important.
Because if “being seen” is the validation that we exist in the world, then the act of “seeing” someone as the unique individual they are is perhaps the most essential work of cultivating a child. And it doesn’t have to come from the person who gave birth to a particular soul, but from anyone who can see their special magic. A teacher. A neighbor. A family member. I have a lovely cousin who has birthed no children but “sees”—in all that word’s depth and wealth—her adoring nephews, her step-daughter, her young mentee, and therein, parents them all.
So, what is about parenting that makes it feel like such an impossible job?
Maybe it’s that we’re entrusted with a complete unknown; a soul no one has ever seen before, or imagined before, and although we know their importance to us—perhaps the most precious thing life will ever give us—we don’t actually have the information we need to do the job. We’re given no instructions, no directions, no specific rules or understanding except that old adage: How hard can it be? People have been raising kids for centuries.
Yet, none of us know what we’re raising.
We’re given the kernel, the nucleus, the source of a person—but we have no idea what it will become.
We could be raising a colorful cherry tree. Or a great big willow. It could be a delicate, vibrant, Gerber daisy that looks amazing but has trouble raising its head. It could be a raspberry bush, prickly and juicy and thriving—or a tangy red currant that we first mistake for chokeberry. It could be a dandelion that goes through its own phases of ticklish delight: bright, flowering joy that turns wispy and fading, disappearing over time; cycling in and out of a tricky balance of existence.
The bummer is, kids don’t come in seed packages, as handy as that would be.
Because the main dilemma of cultivating a child is that even though we don’t know what we’ve got, it’s still our job to help them become the supremely distinctive thing they’re supposed to be. Our job is to support and tend them; protect them; care for them long enough for them to find their own determination, their own field, to grow into their own life and soul, and eventually exist without us.
In that process, it becomes our job to step back and watch, knowing that each being on this earth will have its own, singular experience of life that isn’t ours and can’t be ours, and might not even fit the idea of a life we can imagine—and we have to be okay with that. With the fact that our seedlings might grow into something that doesn’t resemble a plant or shrub or flower we’ve ever seen, in any garden, in any terrain. And know that it’s a good thing. Because we’ve raised that seedling to become something of its very own.
I wish someone had told me when I started out my parenting gig, “This child will be amazing!” and not meant, as most did, ‘this child, because it’s yours, will go on to great and wonderful things!’ but had instead meant, ‘this child will be amazing because it will be the very first of its kind; the one and only of its kind, and it will need your support to figure out what that will be.’
Because even if our kids take all the classes we sign them up for, the violin lessons, the travel sports, the theater shows; even if they dress in all the clothes we buy them and end up applying to the colleges we recommend, our best parenting moments will be the ones when they do none of those things, or try and give up on all of those things, and we still say, “I see you building yourself with this decision, and I am so proud of you.”
For at the root of parenting, apart from the basics of teaching children how to stay alive and sane in this insane world of ours, the truth is, how can we know what’s best for them? We don’t know yet who they are because they don’t know yet who they are. They’re discovering it as they go and if we’re doing our job right, we’re discovering it right alongside them.
Which also means, we’re going to fuck up.
Not once or twice, but on a regular basis.
Because we’re going to try to make decisions that would be good for us. We’re going to push them in a way that feels comfortable for us, because we’re still thinking about them from our point of view. We’re going to insist and ask and demand things that feel wrong to them but feel right to us in the moment—and if we’re lucky, later in life they will forgive us for that and those situations will have given them good information for making their own decisions later on, when they better know what’s right for them, having done it already the wrong way at our behest. And it will be a lesson for us, too, in those moments later, to hear their anger about the bad decisions we made for them and be gracious and humble and able to say, “I’m sorry.”
And hopefully, along our parenting way, we will learn to better listen and hear them when they say, “No, that’s not for me,” or “No, I can’t do it that way.” And we will learn to ask, “What do you think you need?”
For those of you with smaller kids, this might not feel like it makes sense. You are still the Rule Setter, the Adjudicator, the Master of All Decisions. But those days pass quickly and suddenly you are faced with actual people in your household, wondering how the hell they got there when you weren’t looking.
In my house, once they appeared, I still mistook them for children. For the beings I was raising in all my abundant wisdom—which meant, I wasn’t listening enough.
I didn’t hear them when they said, “I can’t do this” or “I hate this” or “This isn’t for me,” mis-translating their words into, “I’m complaining about this but really, I’ll suck it up and keep going because that’s what you and everyone around me wants.”
If I’d been listening properly, I would have heard, “I’m miserable doing this thing that goes against what I want or who I am.” I would have been better equipped to see that the systems and roles I was trying to fit them into just weren’t the right shape or size. I would have told them earlier that there are many ways to live life—and encouraged them, harder, to find their own.
We all figured it out eventually, but they figured it out first. I was behind the trend more often than not, because I misunderstood not just their words, but the situation; I believed they were still mere children in the backseat, with me, firmly in charge, at the wheel. Yet, at their best, my saplings figured out how to reach around me from behind, wrap their spindly, leafy hands around the wheel and get the car going in the right direction. At my worst, I kept control, convinced of my own authority and sureness even as I drove them wildly off track, finally forced to stop; and while I was busy digging around the glove compartment for some out-of-date Google Parenting map, they ditched the car and started walking in their own direction.
Which is to say, what? That leafy tree trunks should be driving cars?
Just this: that we help our children most when we listen; when we take them seriously, when we give them the controls earlier than we see fit. When we encourage them to be themselves and teach them to trust their own instincts, and when we model that trust by trusting their instincts, too, even when—or especially when—they go against ours. We parent best when we show our pride in their early, small, unique manifestations of self that make them feel wholly themselves. Believing they’ll grow best when they point themselves in the direction of their own sun as we stand in their shadows, not trying to bask in their glow, but appreciating the view of them, in all their glory, in whatever shape or size they might grow into.
Content that their creation is their own.