At some point I decided to stop trying to be a better parent and just work on being a better person. I realized that it matters less what you do, than who you are.
Luckily, parenting gives me x-ray vision into who I am. I am able to see my generosity right along side my control freak tendencies within the same day—sometimes within the same thought.
For example: The entire time I was pregnant with Amelia I felt overwhelmingly responsible.
I actually thought, “Now I need to make the brain. “
And then, “Shit, I don’t know how to make a brain.”
I had five fingers and five toes on my to do list for the day.
I realized that there were 8 billion cells, all doing specific jobs, and just one of them on a long lunch break meant Spina Bifida.
This was the kind of pressure I was under.
Being pregnant is the most vulnerable experience. All I could do was drink green juice, stay away from soft cheeses and sick people, and sit on the sidelines of control shouting out my preferences, as something bigger than myself put together my baby.
Even when I was in the tremendous agony of labor, my doula said to me, “Just a few more hours and you’ll be holding your sweet baby. “ I couldn’t picture it. When I tried, the baby was this translucent ghost child.
And again, when Amelia was born and she went straight to the nipple and knew just what to do, I had the feeling she was a savant. In my mind I had to take her to some sort of nipple sucking school where she would have to learn the basics of nursing.
I am aware that I am not alone in this tendency to assume control of things that I cannot control, and that my futile efforts leave me panicky and self-critical. There are moments I see the same pattern in Amelia (age 7) and Josh (age 4).
For example, last night when putting Amelia to bed, in tears she proclaimed, “I am a TERRIBLE swimmer and it is so embarrassing. I am the worst swimmer in the world.”
She is a bad swimmer. I mean, that’s just true. She is 7. This is her second time in swim lessons and she’s not a natural athlete. She’s also careful and more concerned about form than about actually swimming the length of the pool. So there will be other kids just thrashing about toward the other side, while Amelia is trying to do everything just right: with her little cupped hands and deep breaths every third stroke. Her process is slower. At the end of every lesson Amelia is supposed to dive into the water. She is terrified. She stands at the edge of the pool for five to ten minutes contemplating the dive, but in the end she can’t force her body to do what registers as dangerous no matter how many lifeguards come by and tell her that it’s safe.
This struggle makes her feel bad.
Sandwiched between them, I am putting my Josh and Amelia to bed. We talk about our day together. Amelia is sobbing and thrashing about in Josh’s bed and I’m trying to say soothing words that have no impact.
Josh pipes up, “You can do the Bob!”
We laugh. Amelia laughs. She says to Josh, “Everyone can do the Bob. It just means bob under water.”
There is a pause in the despair, then Amelia starts up again.
“I can’t even dive.”
I again attempt to comfort, “You will. These things take time. It’s ok.”
Josh interrupts me, “I have a great idea. Why don’t we get a button by the diving board and when Amelia is about to dive in, someone pushes the button and flings her off?”
“Then all her problems will be solved,” Josh boasts.
We crack up together.
“Instead of a diving board, it’s called a flinging board,” Josh continues.
I’m laying in the middle of Josh’s bed and Josh’s head is nestled in to me and my arm is wrapped around him, while Amelia is on the other side tucked in to me with her arm around my belly. I’m suddenly very happy.
I then know what to say: “Amelia you haven’t yet learned how to swim proficiently and that’s OK, but you know what I noticed?”
“What?” she asks.
Even though you feel bad about your swimming, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday you put on your bathing suit, jump in the pool with the other kids, don’t fight about going, stand on the edge of the pool and work up your courage to dive and basically don’t give up. It would be easy to say that you aren’t good at swimming and just throw in the towel (ha ha), but you continue to try. That’s what’s going to make you a success at life.“
Maybe you won’t like swimming. Maybe you’ll fall in love with something else, like dancing, singing, drawing, or acting, but no matter what, at some point, you’ll feel like you are not very good at it. At that moment if you are able to stick with it and keep trying, then you’ll be successful.
She calmed down. She took in my words. She understood that it’s persistence and effort and a vision that lights the path, not talent and transcendence.
It’s true for me, too, I guess. I’m not in control of Amelia’s trajectory any more than I was in control of the sperm and egg meeting and forming a zygote and attaching to the uterine wall and then making a brain. I’m not in charge or control.
Maybe showing up with hope and vulnerability is all we have to do. We must not resign and at the same time we must give ourselves enough space to grow.
Maybe Josh’s idea of a button that flings us into life so we don’t have to sit at the edge of life and plan it all out before taking the plunge is a genius idea.
Maybe that’s all I need to do now with this new baby inside, kicking my uterus, saying hello, preparing to enter the world in a mere three months, is to just give myself space and know soon that button will be pushed and together we will fly into a new life.
Parenting with love,
Jennifer Olden, LMFT