My daughter has been attending morning summer day camp at her preschool for the past several weeks. I guess at some point early in her camp days, I set a precedent for there being a surprise upon my picking her up from camp. Like so many precedents, this one happened by accident and has now become one of those mandatory facets of living with someone who is relentlessly logical with little regard for context. The first day it was something like her dad being done working early (so he'd be home to play), other days were things like finding the neighbor kids out in the alley playing soccer and Ida being invited to join, or me craving frozen yogurt and asking if she might like an impromptu treat. One day, we went to Ikea (easily one of Ida's top five favorite places in the world) to buy her a bunk bed. In Ida's mind, apparently, an unswerving, dogmatic syllogism formed.
Obviously, this is an unsustainable practice. If I were to go to Ikea once each week, I'd certainly kill someone (probably not you. Almost definitely). I tried, knowing that it was laughable, to pass off the opportunity to quietly rest in her room as one day's "SURPRISE!" Golden rule, right? She was unimpressed and wanted to know what her real surprise that day was. "What surprise do you have for me today?" What had I done?
Of course, since the accidental establishment of these daily wonders, I broke the news to Ida that I would not be providing a surprise everyday. She was disappointed. And then, with heartbreaking optimism, she recovered. "Well, maybe a surprise will come anyway! Maybe we can find one!"
For a second, I got a silent but raging case of maternal crankiness -- mentally muttering something like, Well, let me tell you something, kid. If I don't make the surprise, there will be no surprise. Insert fragment about being "responsible for every goddamn thing around here," a fragment about it being nice that "nobody notices" (untrue), and a delusional daydream about the homestead crumbling into shambles were I to just get in the car and just drive one morning (also untrue, unless the microwave burrito industry were to suddenly collapse), etc., culminating in the thought, THEN THEY'LL SEE! THEN THEY'LL ALL SEE!
At that moment, I realized I was in danger of becoming a Cathy-as-mother cartoon. Ack. I quickly turned that sh*t around.
Because you know what? Ida was right. I am not the be-all, end-all source of surprises. You know what else? Nobody that lives at my house expects me to be (with the notable exception of a sometimes addle-brained me). We've been finding surprises everyday. Surprises that didn't take anything from me, didn't involve any mental muttering or put-out-ed-ness. Surprises that felt like little gifts for both Ida and me. Surprise! The first sunflower in the garden bloomed! Surprise! The puppet bike is out! Surprise! Maude the dog pooped in the house (one of us was less enthused about this one. Should I see a specialist about the fact that my kid finds this delightful?). The surprises were there for the taking all along.
So, just like always, I'm brought back to the same thing again: The realization that what we make together is almost always more satisfying for both of Ida and me than what I painstakingly make for her in isolation. I don't have to make the good stuff -- it's already there. She doesn't see my decision not to provide a surprise as a failure on my part to "love her enough" to think up creative and not entirely high fructose corn syrup-based delights to meet her with each day. She could give a shit about Pinterest. Just like most of us, she'd love to be wrapped into the process of creating the good stuff in our life together -- finding it, inventing it, naming it.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying there isn't a place for parent-driven surprises. I'm never NOT going to get jazzed about casually asking Ida if she'd like to go to Pump it Up, or revealing that I've painstakingly made an advent chain for her at Christmastime. I'm just saying that it's not all there is -- that it's not the main thing. And for a minute, in a fog of media-fueled THIS IS WHAT PARENTING MEANS: SMOTHER THOSE ANGELS IN CONSTANT PLANNING AND SUPERVISION AND HANDMADE WHAT-THE-F*CK-EVER, I lost track of the real possibility of what's already happening. I got so caught up in the doing that I forgot about the more essential being.
I know I talk about this a lot, but it's on my mind a lot. I love the quote by the artist Barr, "I say the same things over and over because I think about the same things over and over." In order to "say yes," (I can't help it -- you try immersing yourself in the cult of improvisation and not be changed) you can't be the origin, you've got to be the responder in some sense. My best parenting happens when I'm engaging with what's already happening rather than trying to make something happen. You already knew that. But just like lots of things, it's seems to be the thing I learn over and over again. I guess if I've got to be a scholar of something...
I wonder what the surprise will be today.
This post originally appeared in Rebellious Magazine.