My parenting instincts never showed up.
** 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. **
When my child was born, I was certain my parental instinct would wake from whatever depths it had been lying latent. I had the impression that a parent’s intuition was all part of the parenting package deal. The transition from non-parent to parent would happen seamlessly since human families have been undergoing this transition for millenia. So, surely mother nature has figured out how to provide us with the tools of the trade within our very own biology. Holding my baby would feel natural. Responding to my baby’s needs would feel intuitive. Understanding my child would be innate. An internal voice would activate and tell me exactly how to parent.
But, something surprised me. I never heard the voice. I didn’t even sometimes hear it. I heard nothing. I didn’t have an innate sense of what to do. While my daughter was an infant, my parental instincts were completely silent. No hunches. No gut feelings. Nothing.
I had tons of false expectations leading up to becoming a parent. But, this one really surprised me. I consider myself somewhat intuitive. I have a sense about people - what someone is feeling and what they aren’t saying verbally. I’m intuitive in the kitchen. I cook more by instinct than by recipe. I have an instinct about plants. I used to farm and just knew what to do when a plant wasn’t looking healthy. I am a bit of a medicinal herb nerd and often have a hunch about how to use a plant and what sort of person might benefit from a certain herb. I have a gut. And, I listen to it.
But, for whatever reason, I didn’t have gut instincts when it came to my kid. It was one of the dozens of things that made me feel like I wasn’t cutting it as a parent. Why didn’t it come naturally to care for my child? Did that indicate something negative about my relationship to my daughter? Or about my ability to parent?
Here’s the answer: no. I wasn’t any less of a parent. There was nothing wrong with our relationship. It’s fine to parent with instincts. It’s fine to parent without instincts. I had dozens of tools at hand to parent with. Instead of following my instincts, I’d take a guess. Or look it up. Or watch other parents parent. Or learn through experience. Or ask someone. Or do the wrong thing and learn the hard way (this one, my friends. This one is very familiar to me). I parented with everything I had. I built a relationship, deep and complex, with my daughter and now after 2 years I know her so well that I do have hunches about what she needs.
Not having an intuition during the early stages of my daughter’s life means I learned things. I learned how to listen and pay attention to even the smallest of cues. I learned to just try things and see what happens. I experimented. I admitted I didn’t know what to do and asked for help. I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I rarely felt certain or confident but I learned how to take charge and make a choice despite my doubt. And that is exactly how I built my relationship with my daughter. It wasn’t innate. It wasn’t inborn. It was cultivated and sweated over. There was hand-wringing and pep talks. I stepped up to the plate and took a swing over and over and over again.
I acquired my mightiest tools of parenting because of what I perceived to be a deficiency. I felt I was not enough without a parent’s intuition. So, I worked to acquire a roster of other abilities to make up for the weakness. Humans have this beautiful impulse to see a flaw and bring it scaffolding. We buttress the weak points. We put supports under what is vulnerable. Once we become aware of them, weaknesses develop a tripod of skills and strengths around them. No fault ever stands alone, but is supported from below by a brimming bolster of other talents. Our most wondrous capabilities lie just beneath the surface of our failings.