There are few shocks to the human system ruder than becoming a parent. From one day to the next your own not entirely unselfish needs, desires and wants must be wholeheartedly surrendered to those of a human being who, while appearing to be extremely small, in fact looms extremely large. You – and no one else – are entirely responsible here. And not just for a cosy week or two either, but for what feels like and may even be forever.
Gazing at this exquisite creature in your arms, you may well wonder if it has befallen you to be parents of the new messiah (gender non-specific), so utterly exceptional does your baby seem. At the same time, you might wonder how to cope for one more day with such drastic loss of sleep, control and predictability. Whatever internal image you had of yourself the day before giving birth is now laughably redundant. Giving birth to your baby, you’ve also had to give birth to a new version of yourself. And witness your partner undergoing a similar metamorphosis (or failing to). Nothing tosses you into maturity faster than parenthood. But can you welcome this profound change and open yourself wholeheartedly to it?
Your baby needs you to be a parent. This means finding infinite sources of kindness, patience, tolerance and devotion within yourself while also surviving raw feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. And it’s not only your precious sense of competency and control that’s disappeared. Choice, too, is out the window. Night and day you must do the best you can whether or not you “feel like it”. What you “feel like” has, in fact, become shockingly unimportant.
That most people do better than survive this extraordinary shift in their inner experience of themselves (as well as the actual arrival of the baby) is testament to the powerful capacity of human beings to adjust and grow. It’s also a testament to love. With the magnificent power of love on their side, our children – if they and we are fortunate – train us to become the parents they need us to be. They reward us with smiles, cuddles and devotion. They smell delicious (mostly). They are glorious to touch.
They also grow. And while the routines of parenthood may become more familiar, the children themselves become far more complicated. They grow fast and so must their parents. What’s more, each child needs us to be and become a somewhat different parent. What works for one child may not work for any other. Or it may work at one stage but not another.
Psychologically speaking, a ceaseless dance is taking place between each child and each of their parents. Much of this is unconscious, with the child guiding us at least as powerfully as we are guiding them. Consciously, however, it’s a different story. We owe it to our children to be every bit as conscious as we can be. It’s we who can look backwards and forwards. It’s we who can see the impact of what we bring to our parenting upon each child. It’s we who must think deeply about what each child needs. It’s we who must accept and welcome what it means to be the parents of that particular individual – who long ago ceased to be a generic “baby”.
I suspect that each child has powerful lessons to teach its parents. The child has no idea what those lessons are and often the parents will recognise them very slowly. Some of those lessons will not be welcome. Some children cannot and will not always reflect back to us the image of ourselves that we most want to see. Yet it may be those same children who can push us to greater levels of maturity – if we let them.
The cardinal rule of parenting is that we should not require our children to make up for our own insufficiencies or anxieties. In accepting and loving our children as they are – deeply connected to us but also separate, preciously familiar yet also surprising – we are doing our best by them. We are also evolving into the best parent (and person) we can be.
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