Before I became a parent, I was assured I would never know such love as I have for my children. “Holding your baby is the most amazing experience of all!” I was told by parents, relatives, friends and random strangers in the check-out aisle of the grocery store who saw that I was great with child.
Imagine my surprise, when I first held my daughter and felt absolutely nothing but fear. Was I going to drop her? Would I raise her correctly? Had we chosen the right name? What had I done, thinking I could raise a human child?
My fear of course made me feel even more fearful. I was afraid, so did that automatically mean I was a bad mother? Where was that overflow of love I was promised? Was I broken? I was probably broken.
The overflow of love didn’t beat out the fear until two weeks later, when one night, as she screamed at two in the morning and I had exhausted all means of stopping her, I started crying. “Please,” I said, “I’m doing my best, just stop crying.”
And she did. The whole moment was so improbable, so ridiculous, that I laughed. I looked at that mewling little baby who half-resembled her father, and half-resembled Mikhail Gorbachev and I realized, she didn’t have a clue about anything either. The fear abated.
I thought about that moment again, when a well-meaning relative assured me that this time with my baby and three-year-old was a golden stage. “You will miss it when it’s gone,” she said. “It was the happiest time of my life.”
My days are full, meaningful, frustrating and involve a lot of poop, but happiest time of my life? I’m not so sure. But even admitting that makes me feel afraid that I am failing, I must be doing it wrong if I’m not overjoyed to scrub poop out of my 3 year-olds carpet.
A dearth of parenting books, manuals and how-to websites, assure parents that if there is a problem that you can fix it. That if something is wrong or frustrating or if your kid insists on biting your arm flab, that you can overcome this with firmness, patience and a few other products that can readily be purchased online. Bottom line: if you aren’t happy, it’s your fault and you are broken.
I wish the word “happy” would be stricken from parental vocabulary. As if a perfect bliss were the realistic end goal for raising children. It’s not. Life is messy, it is hard, and sometimes things don’t get better. Our self-help culture implies that all problems can be overcome. But when that “problem” doesn’t understand that she’s not supposed to keep peeing on the floor because the potty-training book says she won’t, well, good luck with that.
No parent who has ever lain on the floor crying because everyone else is crying around them, is broken. No mom who has ever looked at her child with eyes of sheer terror needs to be fixed. No mom who’s wished themselves away from the living room floor that’s always sticky and smells of poop, is doing it wrong. I wish instead of parenting books that showed you how to be better, we had books that just taught you how to accept what is before us, with all the grace, joy, frustrating, anxiety and fear that comes with the territory.
Because I’m done with happy.
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