Ma-maa…Ma-maa, where are you Ma-maa?
A little voice piped down the night-time corridor, like a small, fragile bell, incessantly ringing.
The sweet, husky call of a four-year-old rising from interrupted sleep, seeking comfort and shelter from imaginary fears in the dark, is in many ways a beautiful thing. A child’s unquestionable trust in their parent speaks of a purity of purpose rarely found in a cloudy world. But in the context of our full week, our child’s crying out in the night might as well have been the footsteps of an armed intruder. A thief intent on stealing his parent’s most precious commodity (and the value was rising by the day): sleep. As such my first thought was not, as it might have been in earlier years, is he alright? I must go to him. I must still his beating child-in-the-night soul. No, three children into this parenting gig, and countless sleep-deprived nights, filled with a myriad of weird and wonderful and garden variety maladies, and my first thought was: Nooooo! Not again. Is it really too much to ask for a proper night’s sleep. Or even a good, adult-sized portion.
But with dogged child determination he muscled his way into our bed, a flurry of sheets and bedspread, a tug and a tussle for pillow territory. There is something about a child’s body in bed — any child — that is weapon-like, no matter how small or large, skinny or sturdy they are. Immediately, I received an elbow to my side, a clonk of his forehead against mine. We persevered with the toss and turn dance for a while, while I weighed the relative weaknesses of a less than comfortable sleep against a broken night of rising. My husband stirred to the side and spoke croakily. Our daughter, already in our bed from earlier in the night, sighed loudly.
Ok! I said at last. Let’s go! And J and I climbed from the bed and headed for the living room.
My ear hurts, he said as we walked blinking into the light. At least we had uncovered the culprit of sleep disturbance on this occasion. I don’t feel so good, he said on a pained whine. I directed him to the couch and offered him a blanket. Not that one, he said fussily, referring to the fact I had carelessly picked up his brother’s rug. Even in sickness, children can be painfully particular. Ok, I said, going to the cupboard and coming back with a fresh offering. The blanket was accepted and he lay down. A pillow? he beseeched. I added a dose of panadol along with the pillow. Open up, I said, three times over, telling him that four-year-olds all over the world love taking panadol (a lie? or a possibility?) and he accepted it into his wide open mouth.
I made myself a cup of tea while he lay on the couch, bringing it over to sit beside him. He lay his head on my lap, a mass of blond curls, like a little lion cub, and I stroked them back from his face. His big blue eyes gazed up at me like a nineteenth century portrait of a young gentleman. I love you, J J, I whispered as his eyelids fluttered closed, dark lashes butterflied against soft skin, and his dimples creased his cheeks into the twinkle of a smile.
Outside dawn was breaking. The first, fresh colours of morning puffed across the horizon like new breath. A sole bird flapped across the frame of the window. My child fell into sleep warm on my lap, curls lit like morning dew.
So this is parenthood, I thought.
I don’t know, really, what I thought parenting a child would be like. My own parents were my most obvious examples, but they did it so well that they made it seem less like struggle and more like art. Like a good musician, or dancer, or athlete, they made it appear more effortless than it was. For so many years, I believed it came easy to them, while all along they were performing complex triple flips before my eyes. I don’t know if I assumed a parent was something you just became, like a reality television transformation reveal. Instant and dazzling. They handed you the baby at the hospital, typed ‘mother’ and ‘father’ on the birth certificate, and then you walked out with a little more weight around your waist and a whole new identity with the skill-set to match. Like riding a bike. Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t any of these things. It was and is so much harder than I expected. But, and this isn’t a contradiction, it is also so much more amazing. ‘Wondrous’ is the word that gets close enough to it for me. And surprising. I’ve never been so surprised. Or stretched. Parenthood is like a genre-defying book. No one category, no one word adequately describes it. If I were to sum it up in a review, I’d call it, not what I expected.
Maybe it all stems from our thinking of children as a category. After all, so much about preparing for a baby is done as a group. You go to classes, you speak about feeding schedules, you learn about the latest pram and baby carrier everyone has. At baby showers you receive gifts in the generic categories. In bulk. And then the baby makes its appearance into the world via the shiny hospital wards and you are taught to feed and to change diapers in the regulation way. If you are breastfeeding, your body is pulled and poked at like a dairy cow in the service of encouraging the milk to flow. Everything is, for want of a better word, programmed.
And then, you are ‘released.’ You and your child go out the automatic doors and head home (via the tricky car capsule initiation) and something awesome happens. They grow. At first a little bit, making their way through the strange clothing sizes (like a new, secret code for the initiated) 000, 00, 0, 1 and soon you forget to count. They become not just babies, but people. And people are gloriously and invariably different from one another. People are complicated. There is no one manual that tells you how to ‘run’ a person . They have their own tastes. They are all different, experienced mums say. Which is to say, unpredictable. Parenthood should really be called ‘raising tiny humans.’ And humans are complicated. Humans are amazing. But humans are less than perfect.
Perhaps our misapprehension of parenthood is also to do with the highlight real, that we forget this parenting caper is less of a joyride and more of a long climb. We see the milestones of others’ parenting journeys. Like births, first birthdays, preschool liftoffs, first days of school, first sport victories, dance recitals in funny costumes. But we don’t see all the in betweens, the less than ideals, the problems. The mess of birth, the score of tantrums we sail on along with our offspring between two and three years, the preschool resistance. There is always a picture of siblings in a row smiling to be found somewhere online or on a living room wall, but never one of siblings in a tangle fighting. We don’t account for the whole picture. But then maybe thats because we can’t. Again, parenthood is nothing but surprising. Even if we tried to prepare for every moment, every contingency and possibility, some things would just take us by surprise. And many things, most, we have very little choice over.
Having a child is a gift. And even in this modern age, we still know very little about what we are unwrapping. We can only receive.
The unwrapping will take time. And it will, without doubt, bring surprises. Some good. Some not so good. The thing about being a parent is you just keep unwrapping.
Things you Can’t Learn about Parenting from a Book
In my early days of pregnancy and parenting our first child, I was a bit of a how-to book hoarder. Now, on its own, this is nothing surprising. Dr M and I both depend on books for our livelihood, we live amongst books, we read books all the time: heck, our idea of a goodtime is a date at a bookshop (especially one with a cafe attached) or a library. But books can’t do everything: they can’t tell you every detail of your life. When it comes to raising tiny humans books are big business. Names of sleep-experts and culinary wizards in the world of baby education are bandied around like gurus. But, just like Marie Kondo can’t actually tell you what sparks joy for you (or even, really, what it means, let’s be honest) books about parenting, while helpful, can’t live your life for you.
Parenting books can’t tell you:
What it is like to cry over your child’s tears. How you ache with a helpless, soft, squishy sort of ache, a deep blue colour, when they are hurt, or especially when someone hurts them (which they will, because, remember, they are tiny humans, and humans are fallible, imperfect, fragile)
How it feels to struggle with decisions on their behalf. What doctor or specialist to go to, or what school, or whether its okay they have their third chocolate chip bar for the day.
What it’s like to doubt yourself. Mother (and father ) guilt is an under-discussed phenomenon. But we all carry it, as parents, the constant self-questioning. Did I do it right? Should I/could I/would I have done it differently?
Nor can books or gurus tell you:
What parent-child love feels like. Like an electric shock of feeling. How you adore every inch of them, even their snotty noses, and dirty feet, and lungs that as often as not scream as laugh.
Parenthood is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Its stretched my husband and I in impossible ways. It has grown us as well. Maybe thats what it comes down to. When we have a child we realise on some level that they will grow. What we don’t realise is how much we will too. The people who start the journey, starry eyed and nervous, aren’t the same people two years down the line, or two years after that, and so on. Parenting is continual on the job training, and perhaps the biggest area this happens in is humility. Being a parent, if nothing else, is an exercise in self-denial. If children are a blessing, they are also a burden. But not all burden is bad. Even on the days when it feels like we can’t take one more step, one more sleepless night, we are growing. Always growing. Like marathon runners putting on the kilometres, without the banners and the skinny waists to show, we are making distance alongside our kids.
As a good friend said to me as we shared text messages of our hard days recently: ‘We are doing okay, us mama bears.’ And we are. Even when it doesn’t feel like it. Even on the hardest days. To be a parent is to be present. To the chaos and the calm, the calamity and the clapping. Whoever you are, out there reading this, no matter how you are feeling, you are doing okay. It’s not easy, growing and raising tiny humans, but it is wondrous.