On studying how to parent.
** These are missives from my past. Many of these posts were written about 2 years ago, when the realities and circumstances of my life were quite different. I am now a single parent to a toddler. The past is an uncomfortable and rich terrain. By occasionally delving in, without lingering too long, the past provides the needed perspective to step rightly into the future. **
While my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I read more books on pregnancy and infancy than my wife. I approached parenthood the way I did most things I wanted to be good at. I studied. I read pregnancy books. I read books about labor and how to assist your partner during delivery. I read parenting books about infancy and the early years. I underlined passages that seemed important. I took notes in the margins. I tried to prepare for becoming a parent by packing as much knowledge in my brain as I could. Surely, my brain would be the organ I’d use most as a parent.
Studying has been a consistent practice in my life. I like studying. I’m good at it. I was always a good student. I did all my assignments. I listened and participated in class. I never turned in a paper late. School was a place I could feel good. I could feel liked. Not because I had a ton of friends or anything. But, because I achieved things. There was a paper trail: report cards, honors societies, and academic awards. There was proof of the fact that I was good at something and a clear path towards getting there.
It’s not only that studying is a familiar path. It’s comfortable. It’s been a discipline I go to when I feel insecure. When I was in college and first started to wonder if I might not be the straight girl I thought I was, I turned to books. Real life was too terrifying. So, I read queer theory. I studied my way out of the problem. I created an academic cushion around my crisis of the heart. It took about eight years to ford the moat and conquer the castle, but eventually the ivory tower crumbled. I came out. I let my heart breathe.
As uncertainties and anxieties arose about my approaching role as a parent, I threw myself even more into study mode. I got together with friends who were parents to ask them about their experiences. You can bet that I seriously considered taking notes during these conversations. I decided not to bring the notebook into the bar where I was meeting friends. I’d leave it in the car and write down everything I could remember when I returned.
Finally, our daughter was born. My research into parenthood had some pay off. I had read about wonder weeks, cluster feedings, and techniques for establishing a sleep routine. I knew how to childproof our home and steps to reduce the risk of SIDS. I learned some helpful things about how to take reasonable care of our child and how to be prepared for her developmental and physical growth. I knew things. It’s nice to actually know things.
It’s nice to know things because there are so many things you can never know. As a parent there are countless moments when there is nothing to figure out and no amount of acquired information is helpful. The only thing I can do is pay attention. Attend to what my daughter says and doesn’t say, how she acts, what she needs, what she doesn’t need. I can be an excellent caretaker with my head, but that is all. I’m a parent with my heart.
My heart listens to my daughter’s heart. My soul leans toward her soul. It’s automatic and deep like a reflex or bone marrow. In doing this, I learn about the existence of my own heart and soul. This has been the biggest surprise of becoming a parent. This isn’t how I’m accustomed to functioning. The territory of the heart is new stuff for me. I’m uncomfortable nearly all the time. I have a heart that breaks, sometimes like glass and sometimes like a seed. I have a soul that I am suddenly so eerily aware of that I feel beguiled by its presence. I don’t know what to make of the shadowy, thin creature.
Becoming a parent didn’t change me. It unearthed me. Parts of myself that had been buried for decades suddenly shook themselves of dust and rock. Parts of myself were created. My child wasn’t the only one who was born on the day of her birth. I too was born into a new way of being. I am in my toddlerhood of parenting. I am full of feelings, curiosity, fear, and wonder. I have countless questions, but answers won’t appease me. I want to be independent and held. I want space and support. My heart is larger and more complicated than I know what to do with. Studying didn’t get me ready. It didn’t stop the anxiety of the unknown. It didn’t provide a cushion or an escape. But I’m in it. Everyday I show up with every unpracticed, awkward part of me. Uncertain and uncomfortable. Heart and soul.