It’s beautiful, hot and sultry, a day that belongs to the peak of summer and not early fall, and my children are running wild at a playground, shouting, laughing. Occasionally crashing and crying. And suddenly, Flora runs up to me, shaking with laughter, and:
Flora: Mom, mom, mom, mom, listen! I have a story, such a good story for your blog! O… what’s his name on the blog again?
Flora: Yeah, yeah, yeah—Ender was just playing with that cute little girl, do you see her?
I look. Smile. Nod. Ender and another three-year-old are across the playground, solemnly engaged in filling each other’s shirts and pants with gravel.
Flora: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so she was playing there, and he filled a bucket with gravel and dumped it on her head. And she burst into tears.
I don’t like where this story is going. I will edit it considerably in the telling, I think.
Flora: And O… Ender said, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, I love you. Here, you do it now!” And look, they’re just dumping gravel all over each other all happy and everything. And the best part is, he’s not dumping gravel on me!
And I kiss Flora, and glance around for Ender’s playmate’s mother, to ensure that she’s one of those-type-of-mothers, and not these-types-of-mothers, but before I find her, I hear a voice out of the corner of my left ear:
Beautiful stranger: Excuse me… this is going to sound really weird, but are you Nothing By The Book?
Now, if you’re a fellow blogger about to go into swoons of envy, let me assure you that a) this hardly ever happens to me and b) I may live in a million-plus town, but the out-on-the-fringe-sub-culture community here is teeny-weeny and this isn’t as epic an event as it might seem to you—and not nearly as ego-gratifying to me as you might think. Or so I maintain, and I am the writer and teller of the story. Speaking of, back to the tale:
Jane: More or less.
Beautiful stranger: Are those your children?
And her eyes, and mine, go to Cinder—hanging upside down from a tree—Flora—dancing ‘round and ‘round and ‘round and whispering to herself—and Ender… filling his playmate’s shoes with gravel and then dumping it on her head.
I fight the urge to disclaim my relationship to Ender.
And suddenly, I know what she’s going to say before she says. Oh, yes, I know it and I brace myself for it, and she says:
Beautiful stranger: They look so clean!
And I swallow my laughter, and look at Cinder’s wild hair, freshly (self) washed and (self) brushed this morning, and Flora’s 12 tiny braids (“I want 24 mom, pleeeeeeeze!” “Not today, babe, that will take me at least an hour. Raincheck?”), and even Ender’s gravel-filled head looks pretty presentable, and I can’t help it, I say:
Jane: They’ve never had lice either.
But as I say it, I regret it, immediately, because it’s borderline-mean, isn’t it? I’m assuming she’s read The AP Hair Style: I don’t brush my children’s hair. It’s a massive philosophical thing, really and had one-of-those reactions to it, and she’s assuming…
Actually, you know what? I’m not going to assume what she’s assuming. Or even that she’s assuming.
I look at her thoughtfully. Introduce my real self. Ask her name. And which of the children are hers.
There’s a toddler, going up and down, up and down the slide. And a brand-new baby, sleeping in half-a-double-stroller.
And I feel, immediately, such a wave of affection and empathy for her, because she’s in one of those toughest, most draining phases, isn’t she? Toddler, baby. Erratic sleep patterns. Everything in life a constant adjustment, struggle. Never enough time. Barely a sense of self… Maybe still waiting for things to get easier… (Oh, beloved, do you still believe that lie?)
And then, a wave of fear and horror, almost repulsion, because she looks at me with anxiety and eagerness and eyes and a heart so full of questions and I clam up, dam up, because she’s looking for a guru and I fucking hate that.
And you think, you hypocrite, then why do you blog about parenting and children and child-rearing un-philosophies, and I answer—I’m a writer. Try to stop me from writing. Try. But this by-product, it’s, truly, truly hard to deal with.
I’m so busy clamming, damming I miss the question, and I ask her to repeat it. And laugh, as I look at her hairless baby, and not much more hair-endowed toddler, because she essentially asks me whether, if she believes that good grooming—brushed and cut hair, matched clothes, all of that—if she believes those things are important, does that mean she’s not an attachment parent?
She’s still on that hair post you see, and I briefly regret using the “AP” tag in it, because its meaning to me is historical and laden with more than 11-years of relationships and reinterpretations, and she’s brand new to the journey, and in the most vulnerable stage of it, and…
… and fucking hell, she’s looking at me with “enlighten me” eyes again, and I need to fix that, right now.
Without being mean.
I cast my eyes over Cinder-way, and send him a psychic message that now would be a really great time for him to… whack another child. Swear. Throw an age-inappropriate temper tantrum. Steal his sister’s hat and run off with it…
Instead, the brat retrieves a small child’s lost ball. Picks up a stray coffee cup and tosses it into the garbage. Strikes up a polite conversation with gravel-girl’s mother.
They never do what you want them to, do they?
Flora, at this age and stage, will be absolutely no help at all—she is perfect behaviour incarnate right now, however briefly—and while Ender’s could usually be counted to behave as a normal, and not aspirational-ideal child, he is currently too busy making gravel-angels with his future fourth wife (he has a list) to perform.
Up to me.
I know what she’s really asking. It’s not about hair-brushing, anymore than my original post was. It’s about the big stuff: principles, philosophies, self-definitions. What she’s really asking me is this very simple, but very big question:
What is it that I do that defines me as a parent?
And what I want to tell her, very clearly, loudly, powerfully, is this:
Why would you ever let an Internet stranger define who you are or are not as a parent? As a person?
Except that’s not helpful, because I know the answer to it: it’s because she’s searching and self-defining, and how she’s defining and creating her story is in opposition to how her mother defined herself, and it’s different from how she’s seen her next-door neighbour do it and so different from her sister-in-law, and she’s uncertain, and it’s so hard… And so, as she’s searching, she’s also, sub-consciously, always searching for approval, from anyone, anything…
Even a mouthy Internet stranger. Even one whose position on hair-brushing kind of appalled her…
My mind’s scripting a long, complicated answer to what it is that really defines me—her—any of us—as a parent, and how it’s the same thing that defines as people and how being is more important than doing even though the doing is what people see—and I have this huge tangent developing about how bottle-nursing with love is better than breastfeeding with resentment and how Ender was never, ever “baby-worn” because I was so broken when he was born and how no matter how often I fail at any of my lofty aspirational parenting goals, no matter how often I fail to do what I want to do, what I know is right, none of that changes what I am, as a parent, as a person, because…
… I meet her eyes again. And she’s so tired. And so anxious. And she’s standing next to me, with no sense of who I am but some knowledge of what I do and too full of what I write. And she’s on such an early, fragile stage of her journey. And she so desperately wants approval. Re-assurance.
And I so don’t want to be a guru. On a pedestal.
But you know what? Fuck it. This moment isn’t about me. It’s about her.
“You,” I say, “are a really, really fucking amazing mother. I see it in how you look at your kids. It’s flowing out of every part of you. You are a great, great mother. All the things you do, or don’t do, that get labeled as—whatever, attachment parenting, permissive, authoritarian, helicopter—insert label of choice here—all those things that you do or don’t do? They barely matter. It doesn’t matter what you do, someone out there will criticize it, take you apart for it. But what you are—this amazing woman who loves, loves, loves and cares so much for them? That’s who you are, what you are—what defines you as a parent. Don’t let anyone ever belittle that, make you doubt that.”
The baby stirs and starts to fuss, and she goes to feed it. And while the little is latching on, the toddler stumbles and gets a bleeding nose and starts to cry. And she tends to one and to the other, and they’re both crying, because she’s pulled in two directions, and she’s already exhausted. And she pulls it together, and does what needs to be done… and they’re in the stroller, homeward-bound, where she has so much more, so much more to do.
An amazing mother.
An amazing woman.
Who should never, ever need the approval of Internet strangers. Or, god forbid, that of Aunt Augusta.
But when she does—when she comes to you, vulnerable and tired and aching for affirmation—give it.
How you treat her defines you as a person. As a parent.
P.S. Beautiful stranger: you know where to find me. Coffee, and a “thunk” off my pedestal are in order. If we meet with kids, I promise to yell at them at least twice, and if we meet in the afternoon, I can almost guarantee an Ender-meltdown.
P.P.S. And what happened in the blogosphere this week? I haven’t a clue. Super self-involved this week. Oh, what a week. Month. Summer. But, on the day we were celebrating #yycpride in Calgary, I connected with Seven Little Mexicans on Twitter, and I think you should check out their super cool blog “because funny things happen when two girls try to make a baby.” New to Twitter, they are, so give them a follow at @7littleMexicans.