I wonder: do all parents of small children feel like their lives are out of control? Or is it just me? Or is it that we just had a really hard week, and today we had a hard day, and tonight I'm exhausted, the house is a mess, my worries are swirling around my head like bees, and I can't make bedtime happen fast enough? I mean - I have to work on my taxes, tonight, for God's sake, and that actually seems preferable to trying to bring this whirling dervish of a life under control.
There are two things that make coexisting with young children so difficult. The first is that everything - and I seriously mean everything - is SO intense, dramatic, and extreme. It's not just that you experience a full range of emotions in one day (you do). It's that you experience the full range of human emotions in an hour (and sometimes less). Just this morning, I was telling a friend how good, how wonderful it is to have two kids. And it is, of course. And it is also basically impossible! By this evening I was trying to figure out how to get through the last hour of bedtime preparations without completely losing my mind.
Meanwhile, 90% (or maybe even more) of this extremely intense stuff happens in a vacuum. There are times when I guess this is a blessing - I mean, if you could've seen the simultaneous tantrums that went on today having to do with a (minor) injury from a broken piece of furniture followed by a cancelled trip to gymnastics due to car trouble, all while my husband was trying to get AAA to come out and deal with said car and I was making an attempt to write a business email....lets just say it wasn't pretty. But otherwise the fact that we often undergo the extremes of parenting completely on our own is pretty alienating, and only serves to intensify our feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity.
What forums are there for these moments of great parenting intensity to go from the private to the public sphere? Well, there's social media. Yay! What better way to increase our collective self-disrespect than to endlessly compare ourselves to an unrepresentative and overly positive sample of the population? In all seriousness, I love many things about social media - the new and old connections, the ease of sharing creative expressions that are so meaningful to me like photography, writing, and cooking, and the hybrid public/private sphere it creates where it's (usually) acceptable to share even very intimate details. A week ago today, as I bid tearful goodbye to my beloved dog Murphy, I was able to reach out to a broad and loving community who surrounded my family with warmth and prayer, in a way that previously would have been cumbersome at best, and most likely impossible. But I also know that the propensity - at least within myself - to teeter on the edge of the abyss via ongoing social media comparisons is a dangerous one. True community - in it's most pure form - lifts up and supports, without simply being a space where one's impeccably decorated home/smiling children/baked cake can be compared.
Social media criticism aside, out in the real world, parenting is still often an oh-so-lonely adventure. When you see a mother with a young child melting down at the grocery store or elsewhere, you sympathize, you smile kindly, you might even offer a word of encouragement or more to help out. But, in the end, if its not your kid melting down, well...it's not your kid melting down. I realize this is counter to the whole "it takes a village" concept (which I wholeheartedly believe!) - but who's kidding who here? When it's someone else's kid, there just isn't the angst and anguish you feel when it's yours. It doesn't diminish your empathy, but deep inside you're just thankful it isn't your kid lying on the floor of Earthfare while you try to wrest the opened box of bunnies away from him (not that I know this from experience or anything).
One good thing about parenting being intense and primal and occurring in, essentially, a dark cave full of sharp rocks, is that the tiniest pinprick of light can often illuminate even the most out-of-control day. At the end of this crazy day I have had, the tantrums were over, dinner was eaten, baths were given, and I put my kids to bed with love. I nursed Oscar to sleep, kissed his slightly damp, clean hair, and laid him down in his crib on his tummy. I snuggled on the couch with Dora to read a few books. After she was asleep, I looked through her school binder. Her report card shows her excelling in Art. She brought home a sweet drawing of "Princess Dora" with "I love mom" written at the bottom. Her teachers sent home 4 "good behavior" notes from the past semester, when she got "star student" stickers for good behavior. One of them says, "cleaned up whole classroom without being asked". She might have had a wicked-bad temper tantrum earlier today, but guess what? We must be doing something right. She's navigating being 5-years-old, and most of the time she's doing wonderfully and being a sweet, empathetic, funny, and loving little girl.
Maybe the whole point is that it's supposed to be messy and out-of-control. Maybe the point is that we all need to have the moments of complete chaos and mess against which to compare the moments of light and beauty. It's like needing Lent to prepare for Easter - we need time for contemplation, chaos, winter, darkness, caves full of sharp rocks. Otherwise we'd run right past those Bradford Pears and Weeping Cherries breaking into blossom without even noticing. Food never tasted so good as the first time you're really feeling hungry after an illness. The sun never felt so warm on your face as it does on the first real day of spring.
And the next time it's cloudy and cold, and I'm feeling all alone in that dark cave full of sharp rocks, I just have to remember that everyone feels that out-of-control now and then. There are other parents (and people) there in the cave, too. It's just SO dark in there, you can't tell there's anyone else there, until that little pinprick of light sneaks in and illuminates the whole place, all of us squinting our eyes and feeling the new warmth of sun on our faces.