The funny (or cruel) thing about parenting is that, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, that you can handle it and know what you’re doing, you get an unexpected curveball. And you wonder, “Where in the HELL did that come from?”
In my house, this pattern has repeated itself over and over again, particularly around sleep and illness. We finally start to catch up on sleep (meaning that the little ones are actually sleeping), and then someone gets sick. Or someone has a series of nightmares. Or someone continues to get stuck on her tummy like a beached whale and needs to be turned over because she can’t yet roll from front to back.
Well, we’d just started to glimpse easy street—beckoning in the distance, inviting us onward—when a shadow passed over the road. Cue the foreboding music. The tip off was the snail trail of mucus from her nose to her mouth, the drip that foreshadows BAD THINGS to come. Then the other little one started sneezing. Before you know it we are back to no sleep and tending to children at all hours of the night, and I’m asking, “How many times can a child get sick?” (Which really is not a question you should ask the universe, because you don’t want to know the answer.)
And then your husband goes on a business trip to some faraway place like Spain, where “meetings” involve Pata Negra, Manchego, and Paella.
So it’s just you, lonely you, wiping noses, giving hot baths and cold compresses, up all night, by yourself.
It’s not a life-threatening illness or a hurricane, but it still sucks. And if you think it doesn’t, then you probably don’t have kids under the age of two. Or you’re just suffering from complete amnesia about what the early years of parenting are really like. (Not that I’m getting defensive about it, or anything.)
People have lots of advice for new parents. When I was first pregnant, aglow with hormones and peachy expectations, a friend told me that, when you become a parent, you give up the right to a good night’s sleep. This didn’t have much relevance to me then, because I didn’t have any idea what I was in for. When I think about his words now, I think it’s a good thing that he’s not standing right next to me.
My former hairdresser told me that sleep issues are nothing in comparison to the things you deal with when your kids are teenagers. I think hers had spent some time in the back of a squad car, so she knew what she was talking about. But still, it was not what I wanted to hear. She did not whimper along with me and nod in agreement when I described, in plaintive terms, my life.
This is why I believe that sometimes, we have to just go ahead and feel sorry for ourselves when there is no one else to do it for us. And this is why I now have a new hairdresser.
In the early days of parenting, sleep is certainly a luxury. Adjusting to parenthood means getting used to a certain level of chaos and unpredictability, as well as to less sleep than we’ve ever had. And even though I know this, I still feel completely caught off guard when we are again back to sleepless or sleep-limited nights. My rational, controlling mind comes in and says, “THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!” The universe mockingly smiles back and says, “Just you wait.”
If I were more eastern-oriented in my thinking, Buddhist perhaps, things might be better. (Although I think that statement is about as un-Buddhist as you can get.) As it is, I work on the idea of tolerating what comes, of being radically in the moment and accepting what is (if one can truly work on these things). There are lots of books on mindful parenting, on being present and responsive to baby, no matter what comes. And there are an equal (or greater) number of books that operate on the philosophy that babies can be molded and shaped and controlled if only you have the right technique. Western culture puts a premium on being able to control all things we encounter—our bodies, our schedules, our careers, our relationships, our offspring—and if we can’t make things go the way we want, it just means we aren’t trying hard enough.
Yesterday, the universe apparently decided that I’d been stewing in self-pity long enough. Just as I was contemplating setting fire to every book I own on sleep training and mindful parenting and all those other subjects covered by Dr. Sears and his 73 children, the doorbell rang.
The woman was here to pick up the Bumbo. She had answered my post on Craigslist, and just like that, the squishy, purple Bumbo was gone from the living room, no longer taking up space and reminding us that, not long ago, the littlest one in the house could not sit up on her own. She needed that chair.
At some time in the future, she will no longer need me, at least in the intense and wonderful way that she does now. She will no longer cry when I leave the room, or flap her arms in excitement when I approach.
I held the wrinkled money in my hand and shut the door, wondering about the Bumbo’s new home and the baby it would contain. As these thoughts swirled in my mind, I was struck by the bittersweet and obvious realization that childhood goes quickly.
Being a parent is grueling at times. But it is tolerable, and rich, and wondrous. I don’t want to miss it.
There’s nothing like the threat of loss to make you wake up and live in the present.
Photo of child by Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr’s Creative Commons License.