One of the most surprising things about becoming a parent, for me, was realizing that the whole time I was growing up, my mother did not actually know what the hell she was doing. This may be a big duh for some of you, but I always assumed that my mom knew what was up. She was never the kind of mother who packed little picnics for family outings and always seemed to have a tissue in her purse, like some of my friends’ mothers did. She was the mom who was quick to anger and short on patience. But she was also the mom who sometimes made us popcorn and raw vegetables* for dinner and acted as if it was the most fun thing in the world, when in reality she had neither the time to cook nor the money to order take out.
She always seemed so capable. I thought maybe she was a member of the grown-up club, a secret society for parents where they learned to do stuff like not let you starve to death, or pay the electric bill. Even when my mom told me about that time when I was four and she discovered half of my bottle of prescription cough syrup was gone, so she called poison control and they told her to give me syrup of ipecac, so she did and then nothing happened, so she gave me another dose of ipecac and then I was incredibly, incredibly ill and she felt so, so guilty -- even then, I thought that she must have known what she was doing.
It wasn’t until I had my own child that I realized how scared and unsure she must have been in that situation. I mean, she was 25 years old at the time. TWENTY FIVE. With a four-year-old kid who may or may not have chugged half a bottle of codeine cough suppressant.
Some of my friends express an interest in having kids someday but say they’re not ready for it quite yet. I get it. I wasn’t ready to have a kid at 29, and I’m not so sure I would be any more ready at 35. But now that I’m on the other side of things, I know that there is nothing in the world that can prepare you for being a mother. Motherhood is a learn-on-the-job situation, and that is true, whether you are 20 or 42.
Because there is no secret grown-up club. And there is no parenting fairy. What happens, never: Amid a shower of glitter and good feelings, an all-knowing and delightful spirit comes to you and with a wave of her magic wand pronounces, “I name thee ‘Mother’ and bestow upon you all parenting knowledge!”
You know what happened after I had Oliver? I did not want to leave the hospital with him. Truly. I was so terrified. I had no idea what I was doing. And even with my mom there to help out that first week, I was afraid I would do the wrong thing. Sure, I had read books about babies and I knew how to change a diaper, but no parenting book could have prepared me for the actual experience of parenting.
This study by Munchkin, baby paraphernalia manufacturer, found that many new mothers feel this way, but that most figure it all out by the time the baby is four months old. Now, I usually love Science and agree with it, but no way did I feel like a capable parent when Oliver was four months old. Sure, I had learned how to breastfeed and change a diaper and do a number of things with one hand while holding a baby with the other, but each new stage of Oliver’s life only reaffirmed what I always suspected: I was a fraud, I was winging it, and I had no idea what I was doing.
And here’s a secret: I still don’t. My son is seven years old, and I still do not know what I’m doing. Kids grow, they change, and the way you interact with them changes. Parenting changes. You change. Just when you get the whole breastfeeding routine down, he starts eating solid food and -- surprise! -- you must learn to administer the Heimlich maneuver to a 1 ½ year old who has grabbed a tortilla chip from your plate when you weren’t looking and subsequently choked on said chip.
At seven, my kid is asking questions that I’m not sure how to answer, like, “How does the baby come out of the mom’s body?” (I don’t know if we’re ready to have that whole talk with him yet.) He no longer wants to hold my hand when we cross the street. I ask him to do something and he talks back. He just saw his first movie boobs, in “Enter the Dragon.” Some kid was mean to him the other day and made him cry and I wasn’t sure how to console him. He says (politely, bless his little heart) that I embarrass him sometimes.
I’m making it up as I go. And because every kid is different, there is no parenting book in the world that could have prepared me for all of it. Truly, I am learning on the job. Even when he is 18 and looking at colleges, I will not have it all figured out. What about the first time he gets his heart broken, or breaks someone’s heart? What if he starts taking drugs? These are all things that terrify me, because I do not know what the hell I am doing.
The only thing I’m sure of, as a parent, is that I do not have all the answers. I’m still figuring this whole life thing out, myself. I just happen to be 29 years ahead of my kid.
*I’m from Iowa. We didn’t call it crudite.