My oldest brother built a tree house nestled in the power lines, about twenty-five feet off the ground. It had glass windows, plus who knows what other amenities; I never went up there to see. By the time I was old enough to climb trees, his fort wasn’t in the best of shape anymore. Also, I was kind of a chicken.
But I would gaze up at it, and wonder how in the world our mother could watch her boy shimmy up that tree with hands full of nails and saws and glass. There he was, teetering outside her authority, outside her ability to keep him safe.
“How did you know he would be OK?” I asked her once, long before having kids of my own.
She thought for a while before answering.
“Being a parent is hard,” she said finally.
This was my first glimpse into the gray area of parenting, but it was years before I figured out that most of parenting is spent meandering around in the unknown.
There is a game called “Why is Baby Crying?” which consists of a set of dice printed with phrases like “dirty diaper” “sleepy,” and “hungry.” I didn’t understand the premise at all–let alone the humor of it–until I was holding my own wailing newborn, wondering what in the world was wrong.
“Why is she crying?” I asked my mother, since I had tried everything I could think to soothe her. My mom had had four kids, after all, and we were alive and well. She must know something.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Maybe the dice should have said “I don’t know” on every side, or offered suggestions that frazzled, sleep-deprived parents might neglect to try. You know, such as: “put baby down and take a deep breath,” or “have a glass of wine,” or, even better, “find a friend to watch the tiny tyrant for an hour.” There is no secret path around the gray area, just a few tools to clutch while you fumble through there.
Now that my kids are eight and ten, I’ve learned to tolerate some of the gray area with a little less anxiety. However, if I had the chance to sit someone down who KNEW ALL OF THE ANSWERS–someone like Dr. Spock was supposed to be–I would have a few questions.
Here are a few that have crossed my mind lately–feel free to add yours in the comments section.
*How do you know when to head to the emergency room, and when to say “walk it off?”
*How do you balance everyone’s needs so that your kids feel safe and loved, and you don’t lose your cool, identity, relationship, or mind?
*How do you quickly restore domestic harmony when your spouse gives your child three or four times the recommended dosage of Milk of Magnesia?
*What’s the nicest possible way to explain to your child that her favorite jacket and uncombed hair make her look like a homeless person?
*How do you guide your kids to make better decisions without them noticing and becoming resentful?
*What’s the best way to survive a child’s birthday party with a hangover?
*How do you keep your sense of humor when you get a flat tire, the brakes go out, the hot water heater spontaneously combusts, and you get a parking ticket all in the same weekend?
*How can you warn your kids about the dangers of the world without terrifying them or–worse–getting them excited to flirt with disaster?
And, last but not least:
*If child #1 has a fever of 104, has been crying and moaning for hours, but finally gets to sleep, and then her older sister leans over and vomits all over her bed, do you wake her up and change the sheets, or wait until morning?