I sat in the therapist’s office confessing my difficult feelings toward one of my children, wondering how it had come to be that I found myself sitting knee-to-knee with a mental health professional whose office was strewn with kinetic sand and dinosaurs. The child whose woes we were addressing sat waiting in the adjacent receiving room, while mommy ate up some of the billable hours.
Parenting has been such a weird experience. Weird those first tremulous months before pregnancy shows, walking around in a fog of exhaustion and wonder, not understanding how the entire world can keep spinning while there is an actual HUMAN PERSON GROWING INVISIBLY INSIDE YOU, and weird on those nights when tossing five kids without shoes into a minivan at 5 pm for a quick pre-dinner run to the grocery store that leaves innocent bystanders gasping in awe and throwing an arm across their vision to shield their eyes from the horrors they’re witnessing seems like a reasonable thing to do. And you do it. Because you’re out of shredded mozzarella.
Sometimes I feel like a brand new mom still, dragging a mewling toddler angry from the pew during the consecration and slinking out the back of daily Mass before another sweet old woman can grab my sleeve and tell me how much easier it will get. Other times I feel like a veteran ninja, like when someone has a public potty training mishap so spectacular that tears would be justified, and I laugh instead. (related: the precise moment I witnessed my beautiful 22-year-old sister earnestly consider a religious vocation for the first time.)
One thing is becoming clear as my children age, with a wise old 8-year-old now captaining our basketball team: the older they get, the more I realize how ill equipped I am to raise them. I’m not a bad mom – I’m actually a pretty good mom – but I’m as broken and human as the next guy. And while one kid needles my extreme introversion which can tend towards selfishness, another mirrors back to me my inappropriate reactions to anxiety, and I want to climb the walls of my domestic realm and run for the hills of my single 20’s, when nobody needed me and I could hide my weaknesses from the world.
Gosh, but I was unhappy then, too. Far less happy than I am now, truth be told, even if my skin was firmer and my sleep less fragmented.
No doubt there are other ways to mature as a human person, and to subject one’s unsavory qualities to a process of purification. But gosh darn it if parenting my junior varsity squad hasn’t thus far proven to be as enlightening as obtaining a master’s degree in meditation, as challenging as training for multiple marathons in varying terrains and in inclement weather.
Remember, Jenny, you can’t yell at this kid with increasing intensity to communicate the increasing urgency of the situation, because it will have the opposite of the intended effect. It doesn’t matter that it works on his brother! He is fundamentally different. You have to use soft words and gentle physical touch.
Don’t surrender this molehill, or you’ll be facing an insurmountable mountain in her tween years. Yes, her brother would forget this conversation in 24 hours. No, she will not do the same.
And so on.
It seems like parenting requires a basic “tool box” with standard tools that work on every kid: food, clothing, shelter, affection. But then there are necessary attachments that you won’t know you need until you meet each particular child: peaceful patience for this one, a will of iron for that one, saintly gentleness with another. Sometimes you have the tools you need for the job, and other time you literally don’t. Not even if you are smack dab in the middle of Home Depot with a black AMEX in your pocket and a rolling forklift behind you.
I don’t have everything it takes parent. I can’t plug numbers into a formula and guarantee x results. I can’t even make weird bargains with God (usually involving sleep) and trade away years of my life in exchange for 8 solid hours now.
All this to say, I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time, even if it often feels like I do because I’ve been on autopilot for the better part of a decade. But then a receptionist will ask me for a particular kid’s immunization record and I’m like, wait, aren’t you the one who hangs onto those?
I love being a mom, but it’s nothing like I imagined it would be. My kids are autonomous beings with free will. Immortal souls. Unrepeatable and never-before-seen personalities. It’s fascinating and rewarding and paralyzing at turns, and I guess this is a glimmer of what the Fatherhood of God might be like, except, horrifyingly, He knows how it will end for each of us, and He pours Himself out entirely in spite of that.
I’ve got a broken tool box and a house full of imperfect kids. God only knows how it’s all going to turn out. I’m just along for the ride. As I embark on week two of my fourth round of potty training, it is proving to be a somewhat more thrilling ride than was advertised.