It’s time to share a little secret: I have absolutely no idea what I am doing as a parent, and I am desperately trying to keep anyone from finding out.
There are moments in my life when I feel that there must be some mistake: surely I am not an actual parent to these two children! I was always an excellent baby-sitter when I was a teenager; nurturing and taking care of children came naturally to me, but there was always an authority figure, a parent, who had to make the rules.
When we moved into our new neighborhood a few years ago, I was pregnant with our second child; our oldest daughter was just about to turn five. One day, she was playing outside with some neighborhood children while I sat and watched. As I was enjoying my quiet time in the sun, my daughter ran over and said, “Can I go to Annie’s house?”
I sat there for a second, feeling tempted to look over my shoulder for the real parent who might step in to answer this question. Could she go to the neighbor’s house? Where was the parenting manual to let me know at what age a child is old enough to go play down the street without my supervision? Did we have to ask the child’s parent first? What was the protocol?
These are the moments when I feel like I haven’t a clue as to what the Parenting Rules are. Nearly every day as parents we are put on the spot to solve problems of daily living; we make snap decisions about what behavior is unacceptable, which snack items are nutritious enough, how many television programs are appropriate in one day, the list goes on.
For me, as a perfectionist, I feel like I am learning as I go, and that is often an uncomfortable feeling for me. There are days when my daughter, now six, will ask me a question such as, “Can I have another cookie?” or “Can I play on the computer?” and I wish I could defer her inquiry to someone with more “authority”. Sometimes, as a mother, I am just too exhausted to determine how much is too much, where to draw the lines, and what consequence is appropriate for misbehaving.
Many of us spent months, if not years, receiving education, training, and supervision to prepare us for our jobs or career paths. In parenting, such a rigorous training program does not exist. Sure, there are books, parenting classes, and websites dedicated to providing information and guidance to parents, but I have found that much of it comes down to trial and error and trusting our instincts.
During some of my more confounding days with my young daughters, this realization slams into me: I am the parent now. It is up to me to make the decisions, all of them, no matter how mundane, how irritating, how exhausting, or worst of all, how crucial it is to the dynamic of our household. Some of the choices we wrestle with, such as allowing our child to watch an extra hour of TV on the weekend, may not be that big of a deal. But some of them, like how to handle a child who is using disrespectful language, really reflect on the core values of the family and set the tone for the interactions of the household.
From time to time, we have the luxury of sitting down with our partner or spouse to discuss how certain problems will be addressed, and we can make a plan to help us cope with parenting challenges. Frequently, however, we have to think on our feet, put on our Parent Badge, and act with conviction. And sometimes, we make mistakes. As parents, we directly bear the consequences of our decisions; there isn’t a boss, rule-maker, or manual writer to turn to when we have questions.
We are not the baby-sitters anymore, we are real parents. It is a humbling prospect, and probably the most challenging job we will ever have. Perhaps that is part of what makes it so rewarding, especially on those rare days when life seems easy. Those are the occasions when we can sit back, reflect on a job well done, and enjoy the beautiful family we are creating.