To be a parent is to live in a near-constant state of terror. Sure, some of us hide it better than others, but oh — it’s there.
It’s there in the knee-jerk pang of dread you feel as your suddenly deaf-acting child scoots rapidly towards a busy intersection (you know he knows when to stop, but still, every time, you wonder: Will he?).
It’s there in the dull, guilty ache as you watch her face crumple in on itself like a Muppet’s when you drop her off at kindergarten (is she going to be this attached forever? Through college?? Until she’s a 50-year-old living in your basement, still demanding dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets?!?).
And it’s there in the hundreds, if not thousands, of insidious fears that dance through your over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived brain day and night. Is he eating too much sugar? Does she watch too much TV? Is he too passive? Why does she bite people? Is that a rash? Is that cup BPA-free? Is he happy? Is she normal? If they eat a slice of non-organic red pepper will the pesticides kill them immediately, or will it take a few days?
Some fears — rational or irrational — can’t be avoided. But some still manage to take me by surprise. Here, in no particular order, are four spine-chilling realizations that I experience on a daily basis:
1. I Have to Explain Things That I Either Forgot After 4th Grade or Just Totally Take For Granted Now
Most of us are not cut out for homeschooling, admittedly, but that doesn’t save us from being naively trusted as the foremost authorities on life and the universe, at least during our children’s first years.
As soon as my son’s tiny mouth learned to form the word “why” (WHY? Why must they learn?) he started asking about everything — and, in doing so, revealed how disastrously my formal education failed me.
“I think that’s called … a sexagon,” I said hesitantly when he recently pointed to the six-sided shape he had made out of Magna-Tiles. (A quick Google search revealed that a hexagon has six sides, and that a sexagon has a very colorful definition on Urban Dictionary.)
Later, as we trudged through brown slush to get to school, he asked me why the snow was melting. This led to a staggeringly lackluster explanation of the water cycle, which only led to more questions, which led to me suggesting we look it up on YouTube.
Sometimes I know the answer but I just can’t tell him in a way that won’t scar him for life. Take, for instance, the Great Tampon Paradox. He’s found my tampons a few times, and try as I might, there is just no way to explain to a small child what it’s for.
“See, once a month, mommy blee — ” Try again. “It’s like a little sponge that mommy puts in her — ” Nope nope nope. “What do YOU think it is?” I once asked in desperation.
“A telescope!” he said happily.
He also thinks babies come out of butts. I’d rather not explain this; just know that it is my fault, and that I am truly sorry.
2. His Future Therapy Bill Will Hinge on My Current Facebook Timeline
Every so often, I’ll read an extremely impassioned opinion piece by someone who thinks that posting photos of kids online is a crime on par with feeding them pot brownies, or giving them a boost into the polar bear tank at the zoo. These digital ascetics are in the minority, as are their opposites, the boundary-challenged parents who delight in sharing their child’s every bowel movement and full-frontal bath pic with the world.
As someone with both a moderate social media following and a conscience, I try to resist posting any photos or anecdotes that expose, degrade, or mock my son while also accepting the fact that we live in 2015 and that if I want my relatives and long-distance friends to see what my child looks like before the Bicenquinquagenary, I either have to embrace Instagram and Facebook or face the surly staff at my local pharmacy, who have not had to develop a one-hour photo in their lifetimes.
But there’s no way of knowing, really, how he’ll respond once he’s older to the way I’ve chosen to publicly share aspects of his childhood. He could shrug it off, or he could drag me on Judge Judy, or whatever the future Judge Judy will be — hopefully a cryogenically frozen clone of Judge Judy, who is also a hologram that appears in our living room. I won’t know until it’s too late.
3. He’s Physically Independent, and a Flowers In the Attic Situation Isn’t An Option
You know that scene from Jurassic Park when one of the velociraptors learns to open a door and the Australian guy (who later gets eaten) murmurs creepily, “Clever girl”? Yeah, that’s how I am every time Sam wanders into our bedroom at three o’clock in the morning. I’m like, “How did he get here?” And then I remember that he sleeps in a bed without bars now, and that the once-useless fat rolls we used to call “legs” have grown long and limber and disturbingly quick. Then it just spirals into a Clockwork Orange-style montage of gruesome images: He can leave his room at will! Get his popsicles out of the freezer without me knowing! Burst in on me in the bathroom to interrogate me about my vagina telescopes! WHEN WILL IT END??? (Answer: Never. Now go back to your room, mommy needs to breathe slowly into her pillowcase.)
4. Someday I’ll Wish I Could Turn Back Time, Just Like Cher Warned Me
Tell me if you’ve heard this one: You’re venting about something to another parent — maybe your parent, maybe a friend with older kids, maybe a stranger in the checkout line who made the mistake of shooting you a sympathetic glance — and they gently stop you, saying, “Someday, you’ll miss this age. Someday you’ll miss the way he [screams for candy at 5 pm/willfully pees in his underpants mere steps from the bathroom/licks public doorknobs/etc.].” In the moment, you might respond to this patronizing reminder with anger, annoyance, or a guilty apology. But chances are, underneath that is fear. Fear that you aren’t relishing the experience of being a parent enough.
It scares me that, even though I swore I’d never forget, I can’t remember a lot of things. I can’t remember how he felt in my arms as a baby, or the way his voice sounded before it could form words. Every cliché about parenting is true — it feels never-ending and yet it’s gone in a flash. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Except, no. You won’t. Screw that lady in the checkout line.
You were there. I was there. We were there, maybe scared shitless, but there nonetheless, there to hold hands and dry tears and give goodnight kisses and decree that no, we are notwatching a fourth episode of Dora, we are going outside.
We may not be perfect, but we’re there, going strong, loving them so much it’s scary.