When you think about having kids, you don’t really have any idea what you’re getting in to. We all know about the pain of labor and the sleepless nights and the assorted bodily fluids. Everyone warns you about saving for college and fighting with teenagers and stepping on Legos and taking on too many after school activities. You might even remember your own struggles with middle school or nightmares or feeling completely misunderstood by your own parents.
And then, without warning, you have to sheperd your children through a death in the family. Or hand off your 4 month old to a surgeon and go sit in a waiting room. Or explain what it means that one of their friends is transgender. You have to teach them the hard work of being human, of feeling vulnerable, of the sheer pain that comes with opening yourself up and connecting to someone else.
These are big scary ideas and emotions: shame, fear, anger, grief. Messy. Complex. Ugly, at times. It’s hard enough for us, as adults, to comprehend and work through our own feelings – and at the same time teach our children how they should respond. You’re at your worst, defenses down, confused and hurting yourself, and then you have to take on their hurt, their confusion, their uncertainty as well. It’s not enough any more to handle your own chaos – you have a double portion for each of your children.
And what if you get it wrong? Because you will get it wrong even eventually. How do you go back and explain, apologize, try to make it right? What if you can’t make it right?
There’s no way to warn someone else, or be warned about it, before you become a parent, before you become responsible for another small life. Despite the best efforts, the urgent counsel, the best intentions of friends and family, it’s an abstraction until it hits you. It’s a shock to the system – the sudden understanding of, “Ah, this is what they meant.” And there’s no way through it but through it.
The hardest parenting work for me, bar none, is the emotional work. And it’s the part that you cannot get away from when you most wish you could.