I was seven years old when I walked onto the set of Punky Brewster, a show about a little girl who was abandoned by her mother in a grocery store. I think of it now and smile as I imagine them pitching the series. A show about a kid whose parents abandoned her at the tender age of seven : and it’s a comedy! Then she narrowly escapes being sent to an orphanage : an orphanage! This wasn’t a drama – or a novel by Dickens – this was a prime-time sitcom on NBC. Amazing. Even more amazing, Punky wasn’t saved from the orphanage by a mom and a dad with a big house and a backyard. Instead, she and her dog, Brandon, were taken in by a grumpy old man. And together they made a family.
Punky became a champion for all non-traditional families, and I spent some of the happiest, most incredible, adventurous, hilarious years of my life playing that little girl. I like to think that there’s still a lot of Punky in me. Or maybe there was a lot of me in Punky. In many ways, I’m still that same inquisitive, boundary-questioning kid that I played on television.
Throughout my whole life, as soon as I could talk, I was asking why. Not just the usual why is the sky blue? kind of questions. No, I wanted to know how the world worked. I was fascinated by human behavior. I vividly remember that as early as preschool, I was already wondering how I got here. I just had to know where babies came from, and I wasn’t satisfied with vague answers. I wanted detail. So my free-spirited mom gave me Where Do Babies Come From? This book offered the complete lowdown – including diagrams of the male and female anatomy. Little did she know, I tucked that wonderfully informative little book into my school bag, and the next day I played show-and-tell with my wide-eyed classmates.
There was some drama with the other parents at the school after that, but you know, knowledge is meant to be shared! The really remarkable thing about all of my questioning is that I didn’t even speak my first words until I was three years old. And of course my first sentence was a question: “Mommy, how do you like my painting?”
Then I grew up (sort of), and eventually I became a mom myself, and I had so many questions. Again, I looked at books, but most of them didn’t really seem to speak to me. And then I looked at the other parents around me – the ones who seemed to have this parenting thing down really well-and I wondered if maybe there was a secret manual they all read, and somehow I didn’t get my copy. It felt like other moms opened their strollers with a neat flick of the wrist while bluebirds sang around their heads. Meanwhile, I’d still be struggling to get mine open and wondering, “What’s that smell?” before discovering that I’d managed to walk out of the house with baby vomit in my hair.
In my search for answers I read books, blogs, and magazine articles, and everything just seemed so . . . perfect. I’d see a blog where the mom was cutting vegetables on the counter, and the baby was sitting quietly (and cleanly) beside her. Okay, I don’t know about you, but that is not my life. If I’m cooking pancakes for breakfast, the kids are throwing batter and they have syrup up their arms and strawberry stains on their clothes, my clothes, the furniture. . . we live a messy, chaotic life. And I love it. But still, every once in a while I wonder – are we crazier than everyone else, or does it just seem like that?
So I dug a little deeper online. And I found some places where people like me were asking their own honest questions. I discovered the incredible world of social media. I found myself turning to Twitter and Facebook so that I could connect to people like me, the other parents who were leaving the house with clothes on inside-out and syrup all over. And then the world opened up. Suddenly, here were all of these moms and dads connecting in a way that felt so authentic and genuine. Here was a space where parents could be themselves and speak openly. I found that the more I shared, the more other parents were sharing their stories, and I learned that I wasn’t alone as a new parent. There were a lot more parents like me out there, parents who didn’t get the secret manual, either. And it was such a relief!
Finally, I could take a breath and let it out slowly. It’s alright not to be an expert at opening up the stroller or figuring out the car seat – just as long as someone gets the car seat installed properly. It’s okay that I still have no idea how to get those plastic toys out of their packaging. All of those little things that for so long had been piling up and making me feel like I came from another planet – suddenly that weight lifted, and I realized that there are a million other parents who have felt this way. I’m not the only one who’s walked into the room to discover her two-year-old drawing on the white walls with a black Sharpie. It’s so easy for us to be hard on ourselves. We compare ourselves to other parents and hold ourselves up to some standard of perfection that we’ve seen or read about in books – or invented in our own heads. Because of course we want to be perfect for our kids. God knows, if I could, I would! But the vomit in the hair, the pancake batter on the chair, and the black Sharpie on the walls – this is real life. And it’s dealing with all that messiness that makes us great parents, and makes us laugh, and makes us stronger.