Walking the Parent’s Path One Step at a Time
There are many things no one prepares you for when you begin your parenting journey. At first, many of them are the simple daily realities and rather inglorious natural consequences of sharing your life with small humans. Who among us has not held our newborn and questioned their alertness at midnight? Or opened a diaper and felt they were viewing an artistic recreation of the grossest science fiction film they’d ever seen?
I remember the earliest days with my firstborn, looking at my husband’s sleep-deprived face and sharing these moments, whirling thoughts and complicated feelings reduced to a shrug and a laugh as we were awash in the humbling experience of being new parents. The kicker – we’d signed up for this.
Problem solving before kids seemed so simple. Tap into my experience, assess my situation, and do what I always do: Find a way to make it work. But now, looking at this tiny, helpless person squirming in my arms emitting strange noises and smells, I was lost.
How do you tap into experience when you have none? How do you assess a situation you cannot fully understand, especially when you’re healing from birth and operating on the worst sleep of your life? What do you do when you can’t do what you’ve always done, because none of this is the same? When you stand in that moment, whether you’re holding a newborn, a toddler, or a foster child you have only just met, what do you do?
The path through the Valley of Parenthood is one you cannot navigate solely through the guidance of others or study on a map. It’s an experience as universal as breathing yet as unique as the genetic signature of the child in your lap. It’s a path we all take when we pick up a child and decide to carry them with us in our hearts. A path we must walk one step at a time.
I don’t know the exact moment it happened, though I know it came as a surprise. I was staring at my daughter, taken in by her beauty and feeling I could drown in the confusing spiral of emotions as she cried, her blue eyes peering into my soul. Somewhere in that overwhelmed, tired body, a thought came. “Well, first things first. Are you hungry?” I sat up and, though nothing about it was confident, I offered her milk. She declined and kept fussing, so I took a deep breath and asked her aloud if she needed a diaper.
The sound of my voice soothed me. Somehow, I sounded like I knew what I was doing. Strengthened by that, I walked her to the changing table and cleaned her up. My growing confidence and the simple reality of a clean diaper took her fussiness down a level. Through my exhaustion and doubt, I smiled at her and cracked a joke. Laughing at my ridiculous state, I scooped her up and held her close. We swayed through the house, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes and baskets of wrinkled laundry. She gradually sank into my shoulder. Her breathing slowed.
Her peaceful breaths on my neck came like gentle waves on the beach as the tide rolls in and out. Like the tides, her moods would continue to come and go on their own. Like the sand, I’d be there to receive them. I realized as I held my dozing daughter and danced to crash onto the nearest soft furniture that somehow, even though I’d no idea what was happening and had no control over anything save my own actions, I was doing this. One day, one hour, one moment at a time, I was not only keeping this little person alive but giving her everything she needed.
My daughter didn’t need a perfect parent. She just needed her mother. And through the sheer force of will, born of her need for me, I was rising to the occasion. I was becoming her source of love, care and reassurance. I was growing into the mother I’d never known I could be. Not perfect, but present. Not infallible, but determined. Certainly not Instagram material, but beautiful, nonetheless. I had created a baby and, in turn, that baby had created a mother. Creation, I find, is an odd mix of beauty and mess.
In countless unobserved and uncatalogued moments, parents are heroes to the most vulnerable humans on earth. We are the world to these new arrivals, firm when we need to protect and soft when they need a place to land. We are parents and though there is no manual or map for the path, we’re walking it.
The only way forward is one step at a time. While today’s step is that science fiction diaper mess, tomorrow’s will be math worksheets, disagreements on the playground and crushes on the kid who sits in the back of the room. One day, we’ll reach the end of that path, hand in hand with our grown and self-sufficient children. We’ll look back and smile, knowing we’ve done the best we can. So whatever step you take this day, this hour, this moment, remember that it’s enough. You’re not perfect, but you’re enough.