(This essay was originally posted on March 27, 2012.)
When I became pregnant with my first child, I approached impending parenthood the same way I tackle everything: I bought every book there was on the subject, highlighted and dog-eared the most important information, and carefully filled three-ring binders with lists of dos and don’ts. By the time my first labor pains hit, I had everything in place to ensure smooth sailing from infancy to adolescence. I was undaunted by veteran parents who shook their heads and said with a knowing smile, “Nothing can prepare you for parenthood.”
Needless to say, they were right. Motherhood blindsided me from the moment my daughter arrived red-faced and screaming. In the days that followed, I began to feel woefully incompetent, and my confidence took a nosedive from which I still haven’t fully recovered. I was in way over my head.
So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I gathered yet more information. I bought more specific parenting books about child-rearing issues that had popped up unexpectedly (Why why why didn’t my infant SLEEP?), conducted online searches, and consulted with other parents in a desperate attempt to find the parenting key.
One bountiful source of information was a weekly playgroup at the local City Park. There, moms and dads exchanged the latest in child-rearing essentials such as “playing with plastic toys greatly reduces the I.Q. of your son or daughter,” and “children should not eat peanut butter before the age of five.” All the while, our toddlers dug in the sand and completely ignored each other.
“Emma,” I called out. “Why don’t you go play with Stacey?”
Stacey’s mom put a restraining hand on my arm. “Children this age aren’t developmentally ready for interactive play. What they are doing is ‘parallel playing.’ Playing side-by-side,” she clarified as if I were a little slow. “It’s a crucial step in their social development. Emma needs several hours of parallel play a week.”
“Sure, absolutely. We’ll get right on that,” I told her.
Week after week, I returned home from the Wednesday playgroups filled to the brim with new information. But instead of shoring up my confidence, I felt more demoralized and inadequate than ever before. I’d inspect our plastic-laden playroom and take one look at the peanut-butter smeared face of my daughter and become completely overwhelmed by all the things I was doing wrong.
I phoned my mother.
“Why don’t you just stop going to the playgroup,” she advised.
“I can’t,” I wailed, “It’s the only time Emma gets to parallel play. If she doesn’t get enough side-by-side interaction she’ll be a social mutant the rest of her life!”
My mother failed in her efforts to suppress her laughter.
“IT IS NOT FUNNY, MOTHER,” I told her, my blood pressure rising.
“I’m not laughing,” she said, lying through her teeth.
“Also, no more tuna, peanut butter, or foods with hydrogenated oil. She might develop a food allergy or dementia later in life.”
“I fed you those things and you turned out all right . . . sort of.”
I hung up, her peals of laughter ringing in my ear.
On a particularly awful Wednesday afternoon at the park, one of the other parents stated that his three-year-old son had learned to count to ten in Spanish AND Japanese. “Can Emma count to ten yet in English?” he asked, singling me out, like a wolf cutting the weakest caribou from the pack.
I looked at my two-year-old who had a vocabulary that consisted of the words “Mama,” “Dada,” and “duck.” She was happily collecting cigarette butts in her blue plastic bucket.
“We’re working on it,” I told him, and as soon as possible, I relocated myself to another bench.
Just then, a new mom showed up with her three kids in tow. The oldest daughter wore a tattered pink princess dress, the middle child had decorated every inch of his exposed skin with colored markers, and the baby had a runny nose.
“Whew,” said the mom as she plopped down on the bench beside me. She surveyed the playground. “Why do other people’s kids look like they stepped out of a Gap commercial while mine just look crazy?”
I smiled politely, but didn’t comment.
“So which kids are yours?” she asked.
I pointed out Emma who was pouring sand over her head repeatedly, streaking her blond hair with dirt and goose poop, and her younger sister Clara who, I just noticed, was wearing her pants backwards.
“Oh,” said my bench companion. There was a short pause and then she laughed. “Well, at least our kids won’t be the ones to get kidnapped.”
I looked at her kids and then at mine, and I started to laugh too. For the first time, not being a perfect parent was funny. In that initial shared laughter over our uniquely crazy children, Corrie Kate and I tied a knot of friendship. She had a knack for making even the hardest moments hilarious, and taught me to take what was frightening–my inexperience and feelings of incompetency as a mother–and make it funny and possible.
After a few months of hanging out with Corrie Kate (and blissfully dropping out of the Wednesday playgroup), I learned that having a sense of humor was the crucial advice that was missing from all the books and online articles I’d so carefully annotated. Once I learned to laugh at the daily mishaps of parenting, my outlook brightened considerably and I actually became a better mother.
In fact, when I infused the rest of my life with a little humor, my other relationships improved as well. I became an easier friend, a more loving spouse, and my exchanges with my mother softened. Now when she brings up the brightly-colored Easter Bunny cake that I wouldn’t let my girls eat because artificial colors cause ADHD, I laugh, a bit chagrined, instead of becoming defensive and self-righteous.
What I learned from Corrie Kate on that park bench so long ago is that the “L” in laughter is the same as the “L” in love. The more you laugh, the easier it is to love.
My daughters still don’t know how to count to ten in Spanish or Japanese, but they do know how to laugh and they know how to love. I taught them that. One of my finer parenting accomplishments.