You Know You're a Parent When...Thomas Beller
They’re always growing. They are always changing. As a parent, you are always with them, which makes it hard to notice, except now and then when it hits you: Their hair is longer. Their thoughts are more complicated. They are all grown up! They have gotten huge. At least, compared to the image you had of them.
But there is something else at work that complicates this process of perceiving your child’s development: your own development. They are on an escalator going up, but it’s not as though you are standing on the ground floor and not moving at all. You are moving, too. Though it is not clear in which direction. You are changing, and every now and then something happens to make you step outside of yourself and grasp that you occupy what once seemed like a strange, distant land: you are the grown-up. Herewith, several situations when this epiphany might occur:
You find yourself under the table. Again. 1 of 8By which I mean that you once enjoyed time under the table, when your parents took you to restaurants; it was a respite, a clubhouse, a source of entertainment. You are under the table again. Though now you are there because something — or someone— has fallen under the table and you have to go pick it/them up.
Photo credit: Flickr user areyoumyrik
You are so happy to see everyone’s feet while you happen to be under the table. 2 of 8It's dinnertime, and everyone is barefoot, and you suddenly see only this. It's another world down there; a parallel universe in which the feet engage in civilized banter while the heads and mouths up above make cacophonous sounds. Down there in the dim, under-table world, you feel such love for these pairs of feet. Such beautiful feet, each one its own distinct shape and size — the baby who is not a baby anymore, the girl who was recently a toddler but is now a little girl (and not even that little), and the lovely wife — all gorgeous. But you also wonder if some of your pleasure comes from the fact that the feet can not speak, can't whine or complain, can't make demands. They are just there, stoically doing their duty to simply bear weight and spring forward. You relate. You stay down there for an extra few seconds.
Photo credit: Flickr user hollylay
You save the best for someone else. 3 of 8It is late and you are examining a box of strawberries, trying to choose which ones to put into the protein shake you are about to make for yourself as a kind of desert treat. You look at each strawberry and inspect it for ripeness and beauty. It dawns on you that you are looking not for the most lovely strawberry, but for the least lovely strawberry.
You will put the least lovely strawberries in your shake, and the most lovely strawberries will be saved for the youth. This may be one of the most innately selfless things you have ever done. Not the most generous thing, or the most spectacular kindness, but the least self-conscious gesture of its kind.
Photo credit: Flickr user ambroo
You see how other people see your kids. 4 of 8You are with your child, or children, and they are very young, very cute, very energetic. You meet people's eyes. They smile at you. If you are on your Vespa with your child, you may wave at them. It's a convivial wave, a friendly wave, also a bit of a royal wave. You are happy to see they are smiling because they can see your daughter's face. She is sitting in front of you, between your legs, as you pilot the Vespa around the nest-like streets of Uptown New Orleans. She is clearly beaming with pleasure, pink-cheeked, the helmet pushed a bit back on her head, hands earnestly gripping the ...whatever you call the steering wheel of a Vespa. And she is talking. Excited. Brimming. All you see is everyone seeing her, and the way they light up with bemusement and amazement you are pretty sure that what they are seeing is a very happy kid. (It also makes you relieved that they are smiling, and not thinking, or even saying, "How could you ride around with your precious daughter on a Vespa, you asshole!")
Photo credit: Flickr user qu1j0t3
You are awake when everyone else is asleep. 5 of 8At night, you push yourself to stay awake even though you are tired. You do this to experience the delicious feeling of being awake while everyone else in the family is asleep. You will yourself to stay awake, and in that condition you expect to be able to slow time down for just long enough to grasp the shape of the life you are living. But you can't. Still, you stay awake a little longer thinking that maybe you can. Until you can't fight the tiredness anymore. You don't want to fall asleep on the couch, after all, you reason. You need your strength.
Photo credit: Flickr user lyza
You grow up. Again. 6 of 8You are building a bookshelf for the books. The many books. The shelves go higher and higher. There is banging. You are doing this at your office because there are enough books at home. "Books do furnish a room," as Anthony Powell wrote, but this is not the same as raising children in a library. So you are banging with a hammer and drilling with a power drill and then it occurs to you that the poet next door might be unhappy about this. He is older, has grown-up kids, and grandchildren. He is a free spirit. But as you know from your own experience, after a certain amount of banging, the spirit constricts. So you stop and knock on his door.
"Is this bothering you?" you ask.
"All the banging."
"Oh no!" says the poet. "Are you kidding me? I grew up in a house full of three kids!"
Back in your office you consider his line — he's a poet, after all, his lines are often memorable. There is something strange about it. Then it hits you — saying "I grew up" suggests his own youth and childhood. Yet he was taking about the house he occupied with his children, while they were growing up. But it makes sense, too. He grew up in that house too. As parents do.
Photo credit: Flickr user heipei
You cherish a numb arm or leg. 7 of 8Someone is asleep on your arm. Your arm is hurting. Or it is numb. But the sleep is precious. Kid sleep. You begin to wonder - and this is especially true of babies but it is true of older kids, too - if your discomfort has in some way soothed them to sleep. They are reassured that you love them so much that you are willing to sacrifice your arm, or your hand, or your leg, for them. What other explanation could there be for the frequency with which they fall asleep on you in a less-than-ideal position? At some point you have to disturn your sleeping child by removing the arm. You will do this. You have to have your arm back, if only for medical reasons. But here is the thing— your threshold for letting sustaining this difficult position is higher than you imagined. It amazes you what you will do to preserve their sleep! They need it, and also it is when they finally stop moving long enough to really look at them.
Photo credit: Flickr user pedromourapinheiro
Your kids see you as you saw your parents. 8 of 8Sometime in your past your regarded your parents as inscrutable, a mystery. Even from the vantage of your young adulthood, from the vantage of this very moment, they are a mystery because other people are always unknowable beyond a certain point. But parents, from the kid's point of view, posses an epic sense of layered inscrutability. They are mysterious, unknowable--which doesn't matter as long as the kid knows that whatever the complications, the parent has at their core a love for that kid. If a kid knows that, everything is going to be all right.
But now you are the mystery. Not that the kids are thinking about it explicitly. But the myth of your inscrutable, layered inner life is being built hour by hour, rule, by rule, time out by time out. To say you are becoming your own parents is too reductive. But you are entering the pantheon of parenthood — the preoccupied dad, the slightly spaced-out mom. Part of this rite of passage is that you are now aware of the profoundly unglamorous nature of at least part of the mystery: your parents were, as you are now, tired. Or emotionally overwhelmed. Or afraid. Or surprised. This opening of the generation above you while you are piloting the one beneath you is awe inspiring in the way a view from a mountain peak might be. And what do people do when they are awestruck? What do they do at the top of a mountain? Not much, beside stare amazedly, maybe murmuring something to themselves.
Also, they take pictures. They take a lot of pictures, compiling evidense that their life really included this moment.
Photo credit: Flickr user zeevveez
About Beller’s books
Recent stories on The Examined Life:
Babble Voices on Facebook