It came to my attention recently that our kids hardly know our names. Our original identities, that is. The ones we possessed before we became parents.
The revelation took place in one of those back-and-forward chats you have with your offspring when you are attempting to pass traffic-time, to fill the narrow space of shared automobile air (in our case sliced into a tight five) with anything other than screams, drama or repeated requests for snacks. We were discussing the letters that make up each of the kids’ names. E’s at a stage where she like’s to know how to spell things aloud.
And what’s my name? I called out, after several repeated rounds of the above.
The answers fired back at me like so many sultanas spilt on the car floor, all the same, all a tiny bit different: Mummy, mamma, (and my personal favourite) mum-mum.
No, what’s my REAL name? My request was followed by unprecedented silence.
Nik-ki, our eldest repeated the word slowly after me, like she was confronting a foreign language for the first time.
Just the mere utterance of those two simple syllables precipitated a chorus of unstoppable laughter. Either my name was hilariously funny in and of itself, or —and more likely—the fact that I even had a name outside of the M word, was quite simply incongruous and incomprehensible to them.
In our childrens’ eyes, we don’t have names so much as titles. Our identities are defined in terms of our relationship to them. I find this revelation in equal parts delightful and daunting. Both wondrous and tremulous. All part of the marvellous mystery of parenting.
To suddenly be the north star to and caretaker of another human being. To be given unparalleled responsibility in the direction of another person’s daily steps, movements, mouthfuls. To be the one to first gaze into their eyes, and then to see the world from a different level, through their eyes. To be their first port of call in both the mundane and the monumental.
In short, a task, a life-role, worthy of a lifetime’s study.
Unlike almost everything else in life, this job of being parent can only be learnt on the spot. Despite attempts to the contrary, there is no class,no assignment, no graduation ceremony (the only gown you wear is the hospital one, and thereafter dressing gowns), sufficient to prepare you for the moment you take that tiny being – so fragile, and fresh, and as yet untouched – home in a car seat.
You don’t aspire to being parent, you become it. One might even say, you fall into it. And what my kids don’t know, and I suppose I’m glad they don’t know, is that I wake almost every day wondering if I can do it.
If I can be the mum, mamma, mum-mum, they call on me to be.
What they don’t know is the millions of little pathways and byways my mind wanders down each new day, every time they ask a question, make a new (or old) demand, start a squabble, whine, laugh, cry, stamp, stutter…
As parents we are in a constant state of assessment-making: risk-assessment, discipline-assessment, character-assessment. Whatever our parenting philosophy, the act of parenting is always fluid rather than static. We are always trying to figure out what to do next. Next in the next minute, and next for the next few years. Our days are filled to the brim with ‘yess” and ‘no’s,’ with ‘not nows’, with ‘maybe laters’, with ‘go to beds’ and ‘go say sorry’s’. Just the sheer task of the minute to minute, second to second decision making alone, so often done in the middle of the chaos —in the moment —-when we can’t take time out to get our heads straight first, when we just have to plunge head first in—is overwhelming.
And if only our kids could stay still long enough for us to catch up with them. It seems like we’ve just wrapped our minds loosely around the current phase (newborn, toddler, preschooler), and they are sprinting and stumbling ahead of us into the next. And in our case, with three children so close together in age, all with their separate needs and wants paraded before us at a dizzying decibels, our house can at times feel more like a managerie than a domestic living space. And for some reason, amidst the clamour, it can be easier to see failures than successes, the losses often eclipse the gains, mishaps can make bigger headlines in our heads than milestones.
In the academic research and teaching circles Dr M and I have so many of our years spinning in, I can’t count how many conversations I’ve had with fellow academics and doctorate students, who’ve admitted, when it comes down to it, that they feel like frauds. I’ve said it many times myself. The fear behind the admittance is this, the fear of being discovered. Not as competent, but incompetent, not as an expert but as a beginner. The fear of there being howling gaps in your knowledge that others will stamp right through.
Whether in the domestic worlds of parenting, or the (supposedly) hallowed walls of academia, we are all scared of it in the end. Of not being enough.
And even though I love my kids to the moon and the galaxies and Holland and Africa and back (their current choices at the moment to extend this oft repeated statement) parenting can feel deliriously difficult, especially when you worry you just aren’t up to the task.
Below are some thoughts I tell my own inner imposter-accuser when she comes calling.
Parenting is an imperfect (but beautiful) art. FACT.
No matter how much we long for the perfect formula, the perfect set of steps, the cure-all solution, parenting cannot be ‘figured out’ or ‘solved’. Parenting isn’t science, it is closer to art. To quote an all-time favourite line from a movie I loved as a kid, ‘Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.’ The art of parenting is, in fact, an ever-evolving experience. For one thing, there are way too many variables beyond our control to ever keep it within the bounds of our control. One of the benefits of having had three kids is that we have had been given three different attempts at this whole thing. What I’ve learnt is that despite having the same parents, each of our kids is distinct in personality and behaviour.
Our eldest is super-sensitive, which brings a cocktail of both challenge and joy every day. Our middle is easy-going, and full of spunk, but can be wild, and our youngest is strong and passionate. As yet he’s only sixteen months old, but I fear and anticipate we’ve got our hands full with him! With each of these character differences, we are forced to adapt the way we talk to them, relate to them, deal with them. They are, after all, not just children (a generic category) but mini-humans. Our role as parents is above all to be in relationship with them. Any guiding, disciplining, teaching we do is to be done in love. And love, as we all know, is messy. Only one being ever loved perfectly, and, as a believer I draw from the well of His comfort everyday, seeking to grow in this responsibility, but knowing that growth in itself is process, not product.
To be a parent is to be given a gift. It is not the result our own personal achievement.
Anyone who has read our story knows it took years for us to have our first child, E. Years of praying, hoping, and taking necessary steps to put ourselves in the best position we could (me specifically) for my body to make way for the possibility of pregnancy. All this time, in the lead-up to becoming pregnant, and then through the pregnancy itself, we were accutely aware of our own lack of control. We had to move forward in hope and trust, not knowing for sure what the future would hold. Why, then, when we finally have a child (and in our case not one but two and then three) do we think we now must take over as sole captains, steering our family by our own skill alone. Parenting is given, not earned. As such it is received, not obtained. We can never actually be imposters because, if we have children, we are parents. So we can cease striving and start loving in the best possible way, from a position of gratitude.
Looking back can be refreshing
Mostly, things that look bad at the time, look better in retrospect. I have strong memories of each of E’s first milestones. I remember feeling, along with anticipation and excitement, a fair dash of worry and fear sprinkled in the mix. Each new moment was met with drum-roll intensity- feeding, sleeping, starting solids, walking. Would she transition smoothly, would I know what to do? Would I pass or fail at this next big parent-child test? By Baby J, our number 3, my memories of these moments are far more hazy, and, I’d suggest, less loaded. Having already been through these stages with E, I know we will make it, and that moments that seemed to loom huge and dominant on the horizon at the time, look more like distant specs in retrospect. Less ominous, if anything, more humorous.
In fact, nostalgia comes to take up residence where nervousness once resided. It really is true, what the old ladies stop to tell you in the supermarket, it all goes by so fast. So, why waste time worrying about how well you are doing, counting and tallying pros and cons, rights and wrongs. Why not just live alongside the ones you have been given.
Sometimes, you just have to jump on the swing beside them, and push off for the ride, sending thanks up above as you do for being able to be here at all. And holding on tight too, because its bound to be bumpy. But worth it. Always worth it.