The 1st great lesson
I was married for one month when I became pregnant. It was, to say the least, unexpected. We hadn't actually talked about children or how many we wanted to have or what our parenting styles/ beliefs were. None of that had come up in our brief courtship. But there we were, newlyweds who barely knew each other, and brand new parents to boot.
Back then, I thought I would have lots of kids -- at least 5, like my mom. Preferably a nice round dozen. I mean, people always told me I was the "mothering type." I liked babysitting. By and large, the children I knew were amusing and sweet. I had a vague inkling that full-time parenting was more difficult, but really? I was not prepared.
Early in my pregnancy, I hired a doula. I wanted to do everything right -- a natural water birth, breastfeeding, healthy foods only, sewing Halloween costumes, and making special birthday cakes from scratch. I was going to be a 21st century, healthier version of my mom -- the best mom ever. My husband and I decided to keep the gender of our child a surprise, so I picked out two names. Well, to be fair, I picked out a girls name and a joke boys name -- I was going to call my son Robert Royce Daniel D_____, so we could call him R2D2. About a week before the birth, we chose a different name, but I honestly thought we would be having a girl. So much for motherly intuition.
Weirdest thing, though. I couldn't shake this niggling certainty that I would be having a c-section, that all my plans for a natural birth were for naught. No-one ever brought it up, even after I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. When the last month came, they were worried about his weight and scheduled me to be induced, but even then, a c-section wasn't on anyone's radar but mine. I fretted over it, and my husband and doctor laughed at the idea.
Guess who ended up having an emergency c-section? Yeah, that's me. This is when I began to learn one of the key lessons of being a parent: Expect the unexpected.
The 2nd great lesson
My son is brilliant. He's the most beautiful child I've ever seen, with a sweet little fey face and flaming red hair. He reminds me of Peter Pan, mischievous and charming and affectionate, but wild and strange and unpredictable at the same time. He was an easy baby, a quiet child who didn't cry often and was easily able to entertain himself. He's friendly, compassionate, generous, and unfailingly polite. Sometimes I feel as though he must be a changeling, because I certainly don't credit my own puzzled parenting or rebellious tendencies for his excellent personality.
About the same time I became pregnant, my mom became extremely ill. She died two years later, a few months after his second birthday. During his infancy, she was unable to interact with the family and had a hard time answering questions or remembering things. I would call her, frantic over some baby-related thing that I couldn't find the answer to online or in parenting books, and ask, "Is this normal? Did I do this? Did any of your kids do this?"
Mom would respond with a listless, "I don't know," and I would feel frustrated and sad and terrified. I didn't know what I was doing, and I don't think any first time parent prepares adequately, whether or not the kid was a surprise. I wanted to do everything right, but the information was all conflicting! This parenting site recommended breastfeeding only, while this parenting site recommended expressing milk into a bottle -- but another site adamantly said no bottles, that causes nipple confusion. And the diaper debate! When to feed them yogurt? What to let them teethe on? (don't use teething biscuits, they're messy; use frozen bananas -- don't use frozen bananas, they're too cold; use teething rings! -- don't use teething rings, they have deadly plastic and why are you killing your child?!?)
When he was teething, he was miserable. Not the loud, constant crying miserable. Just fussy and cranky and obviously feeling so bad that I felt bad along with him. I wanted to fix it and didn't know how. Older moms recommended I put whiskey or beer on his gums, younger moms reacted with shock at the idea of "poisoning" my child with any sort of alcohol or medication on his gums.
And parenting magazines and books were no help whatsoever. They all seemed to have the superior, judgmental, know-it-all tone of expecting, brand-new, or never-to-be parents. That sort of, "Well of course you're doing it wrong. You're not doing it my way," tone. By the time my son was 4, I was convinced I was the absolute worst mother on the face of the earth, good only for utterly ruining my son's life.
My husband and I separated, and when his parents insisted that he get custody, I didn't argue. I could see no argument in my defense. I was, after all, a terrible parent. I let my son watch tv, and I was too strict for instituting an 8pm bedtime, and I didn't buy him enough presents or discipline him correctly. I was simultaneously far too lax and far too strict.
I had visitation rights during the separation, though. And that's when I began to discover something remarkable: my son loved me. He thought I was the best mom in the world, and it didn't matter what anyone else thought or what parenting books said I should be doing or that my mom wasn't there to help me. What mattered was his small hand in mine, trusting and warm and sticky as we crossed the street to the library. What mattered was his curiosity, his bright intelligence. His willingness to help cook, help clean, help anything if he could do it with me. Living hours from my family, separated from the issues that had been stressing my marriage, I began to understand the second great lesson of parenting: None of us know what we're doing. That doesn't matter -- what matters is if our child is happy and secure in our love for them.
The 3rd great lesson
My husband began visiting me during the times I had our son. We talked, and talked some more, then talked some more. We were separated for about 6 months altogether, from July to December. By November, we were already starting to see each other, and by early December we were regularly dating. Two days before Christmas, we officially decided to give our marriage -- our family -- a second shot.
Soon after, I informed my husband that I didn't want to have any more children, ever. I told him I wanted a tubal ligation, and if having more children was a deal-breaker, we needed to know now. He told me he wanted what was best for me, because that was best for us. Shortly after, and with my husband's full support, I received a tubal ligation. As much as I love and adore our son, it was obvious to me that I was not cut out for parenting.
Among the many health factors, there was the fact that my son was nearly 6 at this point. I had just finished the worst part, and I couldn't face going through it all again: the diapers, the feeding, the late nights, the years and years of not-talking, followed by endless chatter. I knew it, deep in my heart: I was not cut out to be a mother of many.
Since then, many of my friends and family have had children. I see in them the same behaviors I exhibited as a new mom: confusion masked by a displayed certainty that they have all the answers and everyone else is screwing up. A sort of aggressive, take-charge mentality, a comfortable certainty that they will not make the same mistakes everyone else is. I am beginning to think this mindset is necessary for first-time parents, a buffer against the terror of uncertainty. I am beginning to suspect it is a normal part of parenting, the calm before the realization that parenting has no manual, and no child is alike.
And all this has led to my third great epiphany of parenting: If you are trying, really trying, than you are a good parent. Obviously, this excludes alcoholics, druggies, abusive parents, or partier's who abandon their children for long stretches of time. But for all those parents out there -- single parents, partnered parents, working parents, stay-at-home parents -- all those parents who strive to be involved, who work and struggle and occasionally find themselves clinging to patience with an iron grip, you are good parents. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. For all those parents who pore over homework that seems more confusing than what we did, for all those parents who take the time out of their day to read or bake or fish or just listen to their kids -- you are great parents. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
None of us really know what we're doing. My older sister has four kids, and she confided to me the other day that she wished our mom was still alive so she could ask if we were all so different as kids. We're all doing the best with what we have and what we know, and that's the most important thing about this whole mess.
So next time you see a mom or dad, wearily pushing a shopping cart through an almost-empty store at 11:30 pm, their flushed and sweaty child curled up in the bottom of the cart -- don't sneer and murmur to your companion, "Why isn't that kid at home in bed?" -- just stop.
Next time you see a kid tugging at their seemingly-oblivious mom or dad's hand and whining, "But I don't wanna," or "But I wanted that!" and think to yourself, "Maybe try paying attention to your kid and they wouldn't whine so much." -- just don't.
Instead, give them the benefit of the doubt. Life is unpredictable and parenting is a full-time job. Most parents are doing that on top of another full-time job to pay for the expenses of being a parent. Cut 'em a little slack -- it's harder than it looks.