What it might really mean to learn to be a parent

Last night Wally woke up every 90 minutes. This is a trend with him—not sleeping—but it’s been even worse of late on account of a stuffy nose.  He lies on his back, nurses to sleep, but before long his congestion causes him to cough or choke and jolts him awake.

At 6:30am this morning when Jay was beginning to murmur in his crib and Wally was awake again, Caroline said almost in disbelief: “It feels like I nursed him all night.” My night of sleep hadn’t been great, but it hadn’t been a disaster, either, so I told Caroline I’d take the boys downstairs so she could sleep.  Even though I knew it was the right thing to do and I was glad to be able to give Caroline more rest, I still wasn’t in great spirits when I threw back the covers and put my bare feet on the cold floor.

Jay was chipper, though, as he is almost always in the morning when his battery’s fully charged.  Down in the family room I sat with Wally on my lap while Jay moved his cars around on the small white table we bought him at a yard sale a few weeks ago.  He’d line the cars up and drive them from one side of the table to the other, narrating the activity with lines like “This is a good parking spot” and “It’s raining, time to go inside.”

After about half-an-hour the sun was just beginning to show in the sky outside the window. There was a magazine on the floor, left there from a few nights earlier when Caroline had tried to read it while watching Jay play.  I flipped it open and started to read a short piece about something important—a dry cleaner who specializes in getting stains out of expensive fabrics.

I should have realized it was a bad idea to read the magazine while I was watching Jay, and not just because, as I wrote last week, I want to try and interact with him more when we’re spending time together.   The real reason is that reading a magazine or the Internet creates a bad dynamic between me and Jay: I become absorbed in whatever I’m reading and Jay sees that he’s lost my attention so he starts to do annoying things to get it back.

Which is just what he did this morning.  I’d been reading the magazine for less than a minute when Jay, who’d been entirely happy playing with his cars only a moment ago, came over to my side.

I didn’t look up from the article, so Jay started to crumple the page I was trying to read.  I brushed his hand away.  He crumpled the page again.  I brushed his hand away.  He crumpled the page again.  This time he got to me.  I grabbed his hand hard.   “Stop touching the paper,” I said angrily.  Jay gets reprimanded 1000 times a day, but not usually out of anger, and he knew the difference. He started to cry.

As the first tears fell I managed to say, “You shouldn’t have done that,” but it was a weak reply.  I knew immediately that I was the one who was wrong.  Getting angry at Jay like that doesn’t do any good—it’s too unpredictable to be instructive; all it really does is scare him, and I don’t want to scare Jay over a crumpled magazine page.

Jay recovered within ten minutes, but the rest of the morning I was dogged by the queasy feeling that comes with having treated another person badly. Around 9am Caroline woke up and we all had breakfast.  After eating I took Jay and Wally outside to rake leaves that had been knocked down by an overnight storm.

I raked with Wally in the carrier on my chest and Jay working with his little plastic rake and I continued to think about what had happened that morning.

It occurred to me that there are two ways to think about what it means to “learn how to be a parent.”  The first way, which is the way we most often think about it, has to do with skills and techniques: learning how to soothe an infant, learning how to set boundaries, deciding the number of cookies Jay can have for dessert or how much TV he’s allowed to watch, figuring out how to teach him right from wrong.

These are all important skills, but as I raked I thought that maybe they’re less important than the second way to think about “learning to be a parent,” which has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with learning how to be the person my kids need me to be. 

For reasons I’d have a hard time accounting for, I’m prone to getting frustrated by small things: I’ll be measuring flour and Jay will bump my arm, or we’ll pull out of the driveway and I’ll realize I forgot the shopping list.  These can be enough to make me angry and frustrated to a degree that seems ridiculous when I sit here and think about them and write them down.

I don’t always get disproportionately worked up.  Sometimes a crumpled magazine page is just a crumpled magazine page.  Other times I react the way I did this morning.  As a result, it can be hard for Jay and Wally to know what to expect when we’re together.  Is this the day Dad doesn’t care if I spill apple sauce on the floor, or is this the day it drives him crazy?  It’s not the kind of environment I want them to grow up in.

Jay and Wally didn’t create the hang-ups and weak spots in my personality, but they do make them more consequential.  It seems to me that whether I can figure out how to make my doubts, insecurities, frustrations, and fears compatible with my responsibility to Jay and Wally will go further in determining whether they have happy childhoods than just about anything else I control.

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3 thoughts on “What it might really mean to learn to be a parent

  1. You can’t imagine the depth to which your self-observations reverberated in me as I read your latest on “parenting”. I could change the characters from Jay and Wally to J and D and all the rest of the words would hang perfectly about my neck. Of course I am not that father of so many years ago but now the grandfather to J and D’s children. As I read your piece I found myself musing, “What would I do differently now in those situations that used to get me ‘disproportionately worked up’?” Then it occured to me that these days I tend to start each day self-orienting – checking out the world and my place in it and then consciously deciding how I will deal with what may come. This usually entails a moment of gratitude. That’s all it usually takes – just a moment – just acknowledging how thankful I am… and then the latent anger that has haunted me for so many years is defanged and I am allowed to go about my day easier. I think the Buddhists call it Mindfulness. It doesn’t matter what its name is… it works.

    • To the idea of “self-orienting…and consciously deciding how I will deal with what may come.” I realized that when I got angry at Jay for crumpling the magazine page, the anger was upon me before I knew it. I had no chance to stop it once it had started. Which means, I think, that if I’m going to avoid a repeat of that performance, it’s going to have to be because I recognize the possibility for anger before it happens, and either avoid the situation, or be incredibly vigilant (mindful) about how I act in it. A quiet few minutes to start the day sounds really, really nice.

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