What can I tell you?
You have your first child and you’re wondering, “What do I do now?” I have two and I still can’t answer that question. No one can. Not even the director of my toddler’s child care centre, who had her first baby recently – and if someone who is used to wrangling kids all day is rendered clueless by her own child, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us.
Of course there are books, and websites, and advice from every other person on the planet – especially anyone who is standing behind you in the queue at the bank while your toddler has a tantrum measuring 12 on the Richter scale. But nothing explains the reality of parenting until you actually experience it.
When I think about my own experience I’m struck by the duality of parenting. It’s two different things at once: I love my children so much and can't bear the thought of being without them, and at the same time, I desperately want some time to myself, where I’m not endlessly attending to the needs of others.
It’s the pull of wanting to work in order to provide for them and retain my own sanity, but also wanting to be at home to make them lunch and just hang out with them. If only I had that time-turner from the Harry Potter books – then I could do both at once and be the woman who "has it all" that the media keeps harping on about.
It’s the guilt that no matter what I’m doing, I should be doing something else. If I’m painting with my children, I think I should be washing clothes. If I’m looking after them when they’re sick, I think I should be at work. If I’m mopping the floor, I think I should be taking them to the pool.
It’s the fact that my children are a part of me and their own people at the same time. I have to watch them constantly in order to keep them safe, but I know they will have to make their own mistakes and get hurt anyway.
It’s the tension between the magic of feeling my little one nestle her head into my shoulder before I put her to bed, and the remorseless drudgery of cleaning, washing and cooking before we can share that moment.
It’s that I can’t even talk about the bad stuff without sounding like a Hollywood actor who is paid millions to do a job that he loves, and then whines about having his photo taken. How can you complain when you have been so blessed?!
I don’t know how to tell someone that when my daughter was born it felt like an angel had come to earth. The birthing suite was bathed in divine light and heavenly choirs were singing (I’m sure this had nothing to do with all the drugs they’d given me). But when we got that angel home and she wouldn’t sleep, even after hours of rocking and walking and wrapping and weeping, it felt like she was a demon too.
If I talk about my angel-demon baby, won’t I sound like that spoilt actor? Or maybe just a crazy person. A baby is just a baby after all. They grow up sooner rather than later, and those anxious hours, days, weeks and months will become a memory.
Except they are replaced by new dilemmas.
I would never leave my two-year-old unsupervised, but when she does that back-arching-thrashing move while I try to put her into the car seat, and her howls attract the attention of well-meaning passers-by, I am tempted to say, “Why yes, I am stealing this screaming child. Please call the police immediately and have her taken away.”
I want my five-year-old to experience everything that life has to offer, but I’m so worn out by the everyday minutiae of running a family, I can barely drag myself to the local park for a play, let alone book her in for Mandarin, ballet and violin lessons. Where do those "tiger mums" find the energy?
There’s a voice in my head shouting, “You only have them for a short time before they grow up! Make the most of it!” And then another voice shouts back, “How can I appreciate anything when I’m scraping squashed noodles off the carpet for the 78th time today?”
Maybe parenting has given me multiple personalities – loving and stressed out at the same time. It’s like being on a see-saw, and no matter which side I’m on, I’m always scrambling to get to the other one, unable to create a balance. I can’t get off and I don’t want to. I may as well enjoy the ride.
So, what can I tell you?
Nothing and everything. But you don’t need to hear it from a crazy person – you will figure it out for yourself.
This piece first appeared at parentingexpress.com.