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Strangers in a Strange Land

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KATE GACE WALTON
Courtesy of the Walton Family

I'm extremely patient with my children, as soon as they're asleep.

Thoughts like this, snippets that capture some small contradiction, have filled my head ever since our daughter was born nearly seven years ago on a mountaintop in the South China Sea.

Let me be clear: There was a very fine hospital on that mountaintop, Hong Kong's Matilda International, and there I was given the best of care. But having a baby so far from home, so far from family, on a peak shrouded in clouds poked through by skyscrapers made what is already a surreal experience ("Here you go... here's a brand new human to take home") extra otherworldly. And so I always thought my relationship to motherhood, this way I have of looking at it from the outside in, had something to do with kicking off the whole experience in a foreign land.

But even after our second child arrived two years later in a far more pedestrian setting (a U.S. hospital overlooking a Costco), motherhood has managed to remain as exotic as ever. By 'exotic' I don't mean idealized, shiny; I know now, as all new parents come to know, what the day-to-day (and the night-to-night) is really like. No, what I mean is that despite all I've learned along the way, there's still something about motherhood that to me remains mysterious and profoundly unknowable.

Partly, I'm guessing, this is because I arrived at the whole endeavor relatively late, first at age 38 and then again at 40. If, by the time you first hold a child of your own, you have already hoped for one for years and years, I'm not sure that sense of wonder, that sense of disbelief, ever totally fades. This probably accounts for all that (granted, unnecessary) counting of fingers and toes I did for a while.

Of course, it's not just the wonder of it all that makes motherhood something of an out-of-body experience. The unexpected dissonance is also a major factor. Before I had kids, I imagined peaceful scenes: we'd color, sing, read and hike. (Basically, it was going to be like The Sound of Music without the Nazis.) But now I know better. Between those magical nanoseconds when everyone is happy, family time is not, in fact, a flow-filled sequence of enriching activities. No, even at the best of times, family life is something that lurches awkwardly forward, with almost no one wanting to do the same thing at the same time. The powerful dissonance of motherhood occurs, I think, when love and irritation come together in nearly equal parts, which they do -- often. Especially when there are buses to catch, and meetings to make. (Sing it with me: "Put on your shoes. Put on your shoes. Put... On... Your...Shoes.")

What with all the wonder and the dissonance dancing in my head, I often feel that I'm the most awkward of mothers. When I mix with other moms on the playground or at a birthday party, I see them as the real deal, and I imagine that they are "present" in a way I rarely achieve. Above all, I am struck by their sureness, their certainty. How emphatic they are. No matter the topic -- breastfeeding! co-sleeping! screen watching! redshirting! -- so many mothers I meet seem to have a position.

For the most part, I don't. There are a few things, like getting the kids vaccinated and disliking "Caillou," where I'm firmly in one camp, but more often than not, I mother with an enormous amount of uncertainty. I wonder how late to stay at the office, how much to volunteer in the classroom, whether to bake or buy. I even wonder about the wondering: Is it even OK to stew over my choices when so many others have far fewer, if any? In the end, I make decisions of course, and for the most part, I manage to arrive at some kind of peace with whatever path I pick. But that's only because the alternative -- that nagging low-level angst -- is so unpleasant. It has nothing at all to do with being certain.

Because the fact is (isn't it?) that in this parenting thing as in life, we're all strangers in a strange land: Try as we might, we can't control everything, and we have absolutely no idea how things will eventually turn out. And while we know full well that our choices matter, it's very likely that we'll never know exactly how. Right, fellow parents... right? So, next time we're sitting side by side on those tiny blue kindergarten chairs at Parents' Night, please give me a signal (use the pretzel sticks if you must!), something that says, "I, too, am making this up as I go along." I'll be forever grateful.