There are many secrets no one told me when I became a mother. Here are three:
1. Labor hurts more than you can imagine.
2. Breastfeeding also hurts.
3. Adolescence hurts too (see No. 1).
But the biggest detail everyone left out is that parenting is just a phase, a stage, a short-term gig.
Plenty of print has been devoted to the myth that parenting is for life, it never ends, and your children always need you. To the contrary, I think that parenting, like pregnancy, is a temp job. Or it should be.
Remember how it seemed like pregnancy lasted forever? During pregnancy, time slows as your belly grows. Then, in an instant, it’s over. You’re no longer pregnant, but your world is forever changed. Even the most stubborn, overdue gestation results in the greatest prize of all. Pregnancy’s end is inevitable.
So, I should have realized that the end of parenting was also inevitable. But no one ever mentioned the gestation period for parenting or a retirement date. There is one, even if it’s a bit of a moving target.
Like pregnancy, at first parenting stretches out endlessly—sleep deprivation, angst over bullying, infinite hours of homework help, heatstroke on the soccer field, concerts that won’t end. Then—whoosh!—it’s over. You’re integral to every decision. Then—snap!—your opinion no longer needed. Thanks, though.
Grizzled veteran parents told me that parenting would be the hardest job I’d ever love. But not one of them bothered to mention that parenting is also the only job where hard work and good luck basically guarantee unemployment. It turns out that, as a parent, you only reach the top of your profession when you lose your job.
As much as I love parenting, if I am successful (and lucky) in this line of work, I will be removed from my full-time staff position to become an occasional consultant, called upon only when my expertise (or credit card) is needed. Then as a consultant, if the business I helped set up hums along glitch-free, I’ll be let go. I’ll lose my clients.
Apparently if you’re really lucky, as this parenting gig ends, instead of a receiving gold watch, you are rewarded with competent, passionate, caring young adults. Congratulations!
Sure, I might dabble and still pretend to do some parenting. Yes, the phone will ring and one of my progeny (using my cell phone family plan) will ask how to cook an artichoke. An occasional long distance phone call will bemoan the loss of a wallet, credit card, leather jacket, fill-in-the-blank. Maybe I can still comfort a broken heart.
But I believe this parenting gig is meant to have built-in obsolescence. In other words, I will always be a parent, but I won’t always be parenting. Hopefully, my kids wot really need me to.
When they stop needing me, I’ll have proof that I did my job. Otherwise, where’s the bonus for completing this project? There’s no gold watch waiting for me at retirement.
There is already proof that I have parented, of course. Proof that the excessive birthday parties, friendship dramas, and midnight pickups in my slippers are more than a mirage can be found in my multiplying gray hairs, a few million family photographs, and the picture books still on the shelf, the ones I know word for word.
The real proof, the most concrete examples that I did my job well (and had infinite good luck) are those human beings who share my bone structure and my love of movies.
My oldest child has now survived her first year post-college and is gainfully employed. My second child organized and tackled a gap year across the country and now attends college as he promised he would. Bringing up the rear is my high school freshman who is pretty much cooked.
It seems my parenting days are numbered as my former duties can be outsourced to alarm clocks, laundromats, takeout menus, friends, partners, colleagues, teachers, mentors and shrinks.
I plan to be jobless because I am counting on my kids not to need my parenting to nag them to get out of bed, scour Craigslist for gigs, and hit the pavement. I am counting on them to financially support themselves and be able to find the emotional support they need. And I am counting on them to become the competent, passionate, caring young adults the world needs.
I’m OK with the idea that their success means I lose my job. I’ll still be around, in my new position as consultant, ready to step in as needed, but gratefully underemployed.