I had a moment yesterday. I was driving my husband to the airport, where he had to depart our family vacation for the very un-vacationlike reason of having to return to work so we can actually pay for this sojourn.
We were talking about the days he had spent here in the mountains of North Carolina with us, and specifically about his tubing excursion with our boys while I stayed home with the napping toddler. They had gone tubing with an outfit on the French Broad River, in rapids ranked less than Class 1 — basically, a very mild river — but the water was high because it has been raining like crazy for the past month. It moved faster than usual and was ten feet deep in some places.
My oldest son fell out of his tube only a quarter of the way into the ride, which is not terribly unusual; but he also lost his grip on his tube, so he was stranded. He made it to the side of the river, where he had to sit for 45 minutes by himself until my husband and the other two boys made it to the end of the course and directed the guide to where my son waited so she could pick him up. My son was typically self-absorbed about the ordeal: miffed that my husband did not swim downstream to get his tube for him, then swim upstream to give it back to him, abandoning the other two boys in the process. We laughed at this, and we wondered about how often riders lose their tubes, and we talked about how my husband’s main goal was not to let the 5-year-old drown in the river, per my explicit instructions. We never anticipated that the 11-year-old might lose his tube or what a parent with three children in the river should do in that situation. It happened fast, and he just did what he could, but our eyes met as we talked about it and it was clear we were both just relieved it turned out okay.
That was my moment, right there. It was the moment I was talking to this man that I have known since I was a senior in college about our children. I thought, we still don’t really know what we are doing. We are still those 21-year-olds, just graduating from college, bumbling around in the world and hoping we do okay when it’s all over. Only now, instead of trying to navigate the entertainment industry and New York City (me) or law school and the Bar Exam (him), we’re trying to pay our bills, own a home successfully, and raise children. Sometimes just as naively.
I think that’s why sometimes, I still feel completely overwhelmed by the whole parenthood thing, even though I have been doing it longer than almost anything else I have done in my life. It’s why discipline can seem so exhausting to me, and why I hate reward charts. It’s why I feel the life leaving my body when my children whine and fight, and why dinner prep can seem like the most daunting task ever on a random night. It’s why I want to cry when I notice my parents’ hair graying and receding.
The truth is, I still feel like a kid myself. I don’t know what to do with three kids on a river if one loses a tube and one (really, all) is too small to leave alone. I don’t know what to do when I take them to the beach and they all want to boogie board in rip currents while I am holding a baby, up to my knees in waves, using my cheerleader voice to order them in over and over, trying not to sound as panicked as I am. I don’t know what to do when I’m solo parenting on vacation and the baby decides to lose her ever-lovin’ mind in the hotel room at midnight for no apparent reason at all and wakes up everyone else. I sometimes find myself looking around for the real grown-up, and, oh yeah, that’s me. I’m the best I’ve got.
I am still growing up, alongside and at the same time as my children. I can be petulant sometimes, I can be cranky, and I can be tired and hungry just as they are — and act like it. Even more often, I find myself just wondering what the right parenting decision is — and needing to act in the moment without being certain that what I am doing is correct. I tend to beat myself up — or I get irritated with my husband — when we show that we still have growing to do. It feels like we should be doing better. We are doing the best we can, and yet we are imperfect people and we are imperfect parents.
We are often winging it, but I think I need to be more comfortable with that. If the kids watch too much TV or have too much screen time this summer, that’s going to be okay. If they eat cereal for dinner, that’s going to be okay. If I stumble on my words when trying to ask my ‘tween if he has any questions about puberty or the George Zimmerman trial verdict, that’s not just okay — it’s normal. These subjects are the graduate-degree level courses in parenting. Even if we don’t make As, we can still pass the class. Case in point: the 11-year-old did just fine sitting on the side of the river waiting for a ride, and the 5-year-old did not drown. So, success.
Structure is good, and parenting with purpose is preferable. But I need to show myself — and my husband — grace. There’s still a lot to learn, and it’s okay that I don’t know it all yet or that I don’t always execute every scene in my parenting career smoothly. My children and my peers will not perceive me as weak or dumb for admitting that I am finding my way in a forest that has no trail. They might respect me more, actually, for allowing my vulnerability to be transparent. In that vulnerability is the irrefutable fact that I am human, and I am still learning. Somehow, too, it felt incredibly liberating to just acknowledge to myself in that moment in the car with my husband yesterday that wow, we’re still caught off guard by all of this sometimes, and boy ,that did not go as planned. There is comfort in letting down the mask of perfection, even if only to myself.
I’m finding peace in acknowledging that I am a work in progress. Emphasis on progress.
[This post first appeared on Brain, Child.]