Non-parents have images of what we do as parents. They think of getting children to bed, of reading books on the couch. They imagine diaper changes and helping with homework. Simple images — all things we do. But the reality of parenting is much more. Yes, we do these things, but we have our other secret rituals, the real things that make up a day, a week, a childhood. We have our own secret ways no one talks about, but everyone knows.
We hunt down crayons and a coloring book. Our child spends five minutes scribbling then tosses it away, but still expects us to admire the random spiky crayoning over and through Elmo’s head. We wish they’d just try to color in the lines.
We yell, “Time to brush your teeth!” Then we pause; we wait. “Time to brush your teeth!” We’re ignored. So we have to go get each and every kid, physically carry them into the bathroom. Then we plop their special toothpaste onto their special toothbrushes and dole them out, careful to remember which brush belongs to which child. And they brush, demanding, “Am I done yet?” while we stand there and say, “No, not yet,” until they are indeed finally done. Then we wipe up the spit that goes awry from the sink.
We curse when we see our child’s car seat straps are twisted, and we spend five precious minutes patiently untwisting them. Then we snap the complicated buckles so they’re sitting as securely as a little space monkey.
We clean poop off our child’s back and stomach; we clean pee off the living room rug. Our child’s pee somehow soaks us. We hold open the back of a diaper and sniff to see if a child has pooped.
We hunt down a sharp pair of scissors (you can never find the good, sharp scissors) and grab our boys’ bathing suits. With the right scissors, we carefully and meticulously cut out the netting in our sons’ trunks, until a little mesh panty is left. We throw this away.
We contemplate whether or not to buy Rice Krispies since they’re a fairly healthy cereal option our kids will eat, but getting them commits us to scraping ossified Krispie remains off bowls, spoons, and the sink.
No one can ever find their shoes. Sometimes that “no one” is us.
We have ruled ourselves either a glitter or a non-glitter household. The non-glitter households realize that glitter is called craft herpes for a reason: It never goes away and reappears at inconvenient times. The glitter households have resigned themselves to finding shiny particles under their bed after their kids leave for college.
The same goes for Play-Doh: Either we accept they’ll probably smash it into the carpet, or we don’t.
We have read a book so many times we have it memorized, and at some point in the car, when our child is screaming and won’t stop, we’ve “read” that book to them again — word-for-word. We were both proud and appalled.
We’ve woken up to a child staring at us from the darkness — not moving, just staring. We’ve woken to a child whining, “I have to peeeeee,” even though our room is not the bathroom. We’ve woken to a child saying, “I peed the bed. Can I sleep in your bed?” We’ve woken to pee in our bed. That pee is partially on us. When it happened in the middle of the night, we maybe changed our pajamas, but we definitely just threw a towel down and went back to bed.
At some stage: Don’t jump on the couch. Don’t jump on the couch. Don’t jump on the couch. Don’t jump on the couch.
Stuffed animals have seemed to multiply exponentially. We try our best to keep more of them out of the house, but somehow, through birthday presents or Target trips or special treats, they keep appearing. Some of them are large. No one plays with them.
We’ve caught ourselves humming the theme song to our child’s favorite television show. Sometimes the theme song gets stuck in our head, and it’s the literal worst.
A well-meaning (or not) relative once gifted our child with a wildly inappropriate, loud, beeping or singing toy with no volume control. This immediately became our child’s favorite item in the known universe. We tolerate it because they’d notice if we threw it out.
We know that laundry never ends. No, really. Never.
On the mornings we’re home with our children, we never manage to finish a cup of coffee before it gets cold. We’ve tried to microwave them, but it’s never quite the same.
We tell our children, “Get dressed!” They come out in their pajamas. “Get dressed!” They run past either in their pajamas or naked. We have to drag them to their clothes and make them dress, or threaten them with a dire loss of privilege and/or toys.
We have, at one point, in public, discovered our child is not wearing underwear — the hard way.
Non-parents may have some ideas about parenting. They may not be wrong. But they don’t know the real rites and rituals of parenting. They don’t know the little moments, the small wants and needs, the milestones we encounter when we acquire a child by whatever various means we choose to get them — including this: We love our kids. But love is not the same as like. Sometimes we fantasize about a life without them. But mostly, we’re happy with them. And that’s the real secret.