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Thursday
Oct252012

The Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love

They say parenthood is the hardest job you’ll ever love, and they’re right. When my daughter was born, nothing could have prepared me for the difficulties ahead: The bone-crushing exhaustion that comes from catching sleep by minutes, rather than hours; the constant fear that if you lower your guard for just one second, the SIDS monster will snatch away your baby; the searing pain of trying to breastfeed when latching problems have left you cracked and bleeding. “Maternal bonding time,” my ass.

Then came the toddler years, brimming with battles of will so mind-numbingly frustrating they made the days of 2 a.m. feedings look better than an ice cream sundae topped with whipped cream and George Clooney. This is what they meant by the hardest job you’ll ever love, I thought. The Terrible Two’s … the Even-More-Terrible Three’s … and the Really Rather Dreadful Four’s.

My daughter is seven now, and the days of tantrums are behind us. There’s no longer a need to drag my screaming child through the house (by her ankles) and hold her ever-squirming body in the time-out corner for three of the longest minutes of my life. She hasn’t had a time-out in years. There are rules, and there are consequences for breaking them. She gets that, and she also gets that we don’t relent — even when her punishment backfires on us (like when we revoked a much-anticipated sleepover … Mommy and Daddy had big plans for their night alone, dammit!). Still, consistent discipline has paid off.

So, this whole parenting this is a piece of cake now, right?

Not so fast, Perky McOptimism. It’s a piece of something, but it sure as hell ain’t cake. Because however out-of-control those early years felt at the time, there was still control. And it was mine to wield. I had the power to make everything better and, more importantly, I was allowed to use that power.

You scraped your chin? Mommy will bandage it. You had a nightmare? Mommy will sing you back to sleep. Your tummy hurts? Mommy will wash the vomit from her hair and then snuggle with you until you feel better. Ah, those were the days.

Now I sit with impotent rage while she cries over whatever psychological scars her classmates have inflicted that day. This week it was something seemingly simple — Best Frienemy demands to be given her favorite snack at recess each day.

“If you don’t want to give it to her," I say, "then don't."

“Then I’ll hurt her feelings.”

“You don’t have to be mean about it. Just politely remind her that it’s your snack, and you want to eat it.”

“When I do that, she says she won’t be my friend anymore.”

*cue lengthy discussion about friendship versus extortion, the crux of which is: real friends don’t pull shit like this*

Me: “If this is important to you, then you have to stand up to her. If she’s really your friend, she’ll accept that and perhaps even respect you more for it. Trust me, babe. You’re not doing yourself — or her — any favors by letting her bully you. She has to learn what sort of behavior is and isn’t acceptable, and as her friend, you have a responsibility to help her learn that.”

“But then she won’t play with me anymore.” The tears are flowing freely now.

“There are plenty of other kids in your class,” I remind her. “If that’s how she wants to be, play with someone else.”

“I can’t!” she wails. “She tells everyone they’re not allowed to play with me.”

“Everyone? Really?”

“Everyone!”

“I bet you can find one kid in your class who’d still play with you.” But I wonder how much is exaggeration. Kids are scary.

“I don’t want to be alone,” my daughter says, her voice barely audible. “Can’t I please just go to a different school?”

And this is the point where, as a parent, you begin to long for the simple days of exploding diapers and sleepless nights. The days when you still had the power to soothe and comfort your child. Yours was the superhero status gleaned from an awesome ability to mend every broken toy, broken dream, and broken heart that came along. Mommy could fix anything.

When your child looks at you, pleading, and you recognize their unshakable faith — their certainty that you, Supermom, can fix this for them — it is indescribably painful to tell them they’re wrong.

Sure, there are things I could do: I could remind the school to enforce their “no sharing” policy. I could have a talk with Best Frienemy and tell her to back the fuck off. I could meet with Best Frienemy’s parents — they are wonderful people who don’t pretend their kid is perfect. I know they’d address the problem quickly and efficiently. But would any of these solutions truly help my daughter in the long run?

She needs to learn how to stand up for herself, and the sooner the better. Today’s schoolyard bully is tomorrow’s abusive boyfriend. If I fight her battles now, how will she defend herself later? I’d be depriving her of the chance to show the world how strong she can be, and in doing so I'd make her exponentially weaker.

Sadly, the best thing I can do to help her is … nothing. Nothing substantial, at least. I’ll stand behind her, and I’ll continue to guide her and support her as best I’m able. But to her it must look like I don’t care enough to get involved. I’ve told her she has to fix this herself. The choice is hers, and she alone must make it. But from her point of view, I’ve failed her. If you look hard enough, you can see it in her eyes. The lowering of the pedestal. The removal of the cape. I’ve pulled back the curtain, and she sees there’s just an ordinary woman back there. An ordinary woman who has no fucking idea what she’s doing.

The hardest job you’ll ever love? You could say that.

Because the thing about parenthood is it starts out two degrees from impossible and then it gets hard. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re lying (or they haven’t been paying attention, and their kids are one match away from setting the family cat on fire). Parenting isn’t easy. And if you think it is, then you’re doing it wrong.

The good news is it’s a life-long gig. You don’t stop worrying about your kids just because they’ve moved out — if anything, you remember all the crap you did in college and worry about them more than ever. As long as you both draw breath, you will spend each day worrying, suppressing every instinct you have to jump in and keep them from making some huge mistake and getting their hearts (and yours) broken again. Because deep down you know the lessons they learn from each failure outweigh the failure itself. And each mistake makes them stronger. Braver. Smarter.

Which is good, because some day they are going to have children of their own, and they are going to experience fear and rage and heartbreak unlike any they have ever known before. And they will need every ounce of courage and knowledge they have squeezed from their own life — that life you gave them, that life you stepped back from despite the pain. That life you let them live for themselves.

Best of luck, my friends. We’re going to need it.

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