One thing I really love about being a parent is a perfect moment when everything is in sync -- when I've learned what my child needs and know how to respond in just the right way. The first time this happened for me, my son was about a week old. After some initial fumbling, I figured out his feeding schedule. Which actually wasn't that hard, because when your kid starts crying every two hours, you learn quickly that sticking him on your boob will make the crying stop.
It was, however, a watershed moment for me.
I was elated. I felt powerful.
I was a Good Mom. For two days.
Suddenly, a feeding every two hours wasn't enough -- he wanted to eat every hour. There was that pesky crying again. Hadn't we come to an agreement? Hadn't we found our rhythm, this little guy and me? What was up with the bait and switch?
I no longer felt powerful. I was a Bad Mom.
Although I eventually figured out a new feeding schedule, this moment in parenting taught me a couple of things: (1) a cruel irony of life is that when you're pregnant and breastfeeding, when you really and truly need a drink, you aren't allowed to have one, and, more importantly, (2) parenting is a crash course in adaptation. If you can't do it, you're a goner.
I wasn't surprised that my son would change or that my parenting would need to evolve too. Kids start as swaddled bundles who sleep, eat, and throw up on you (a lot, and usually at two in the morning). Then they get mobile and morph into kamikazes intent on playing with the most dangerous object in the room. Next they're pre-teens who tolerate your existence and then, teenagers who wish you would disappear except when they need cash or a ride.
At some point, they move out and, if the gods are good, become parents who are tortured by their own offspring.
The reality of it all, however, can catch you by surprise. Just when you think you've got everything figured out, when bedtime is a breeze, when you've got a menu of meals that everyone will eat, when carpooling is down to a science, those pesky offspring go and change on you.
And what really shocks the hell out of me is how quickly things change. At every step of my son's little life, we've hit walls I never expected and bumps that seemed inconceivable a day before. I have a hard time staying ahead of the curve.
Potty training for instance. I thought we were set. My son was happy and willing to leave diapers behind and end the nasty stench emanating from the diaper pail. He was down to night-time pull-ups. There was much joy. Then suddenly, pooping on the potty was out of the question. I still don't know why. So we're back to waiting until he's ready. Again. (Adding insult to injury, I threw out the diaper pail, and there isn't enough air freshener in the world to save us.)
Sleeping is another minefield. My son was an awesome sleeper. When I put him in bed, he was happy to go. He went to sleep immediately and slept for a solid twelve hours. Every night. Little bumps here and there -- teething, a bad cold -- went by quickly. Now he's discovered procrastination. Gone are the days when we'd tuck him in, turn out the light and go sneak in an hour of TV before we collapsed with exhaustion. We're in "Go the F**K to Sleep" territory. There are drinks of water, stories, extra tucking, reassurances, books, questions, and explanations that drag bedtime out for an hour. I can't remember when I last ate dinner before 9 p.m. or without interruption.
Even though most of my "What just happened?" moments occur with my preschooler, don't think you're out of the woods once they become teenagers.
Although my son will tell you instantaneously if he suddenly can't bear to wear red or hates the toothpaste he's been using for two years, my stepson evolves more covertly. It took me months to discover he hates kale. He used to eat it, but no longer. Neither he nor I can pinpoint the exact moment this happened. Friends disappear silently, to be replaced with new ones. Slang changes on a weekly basis. I think he just told me he's doing his homework, but he might be plotting to take over the world. It's a far more subtle, but just as disorienting, set of changes.
I could go on (and I imagine most of you could do the same. If you're half as whiplashed as I am, please do vent in the comments). I've learned the hard way that nothing, absolutely nothing, stays constant in the life of a child. Which means that everything, absolutely everything, is in constant flux for parents.
All of this back and forth might explain why I envy Oprah so much. It isn't just for the gazillions of dollars, the extraordinary career, or the dogs (although I do love those dogs). I envy her because she writes a monthly column in O Magazine titled "What I Know for Sure." She knows things for sure. Enough things to write a monthly column.
Since I became a parent, I can't think of a damn thing I know for sure.
This is unfortunate, because I think the "Parent" job description requires a tiny bit of certainty. I'm responsible for helping to raise two boys -- it might be useful if I could anticipate their next move before they do. I don't see that happening. I'm the poster child for deer-in-the-headlights parenting. I stand frozen while the latest phase mows me down and leaves me flattened on the side of the road.
I know my job as a parent is to provide stability and continuity to my kids. Is it too much to ask that they occasionally do the same for me?