So since the weather warmed up, parenting has become a little easier. I sit in the sun while he plays in the sandpit and then we cycle home slowly, singing five little ducks together. We eat ice cream and blow bubbles in the garden and collect pebbles along the river. And this is not an idealised version of our days- they are genuinely slow paced and pleasant and brimming with simple pleasures. Idyllic, in a word. And he has grown up a little- sometimes he potters off by himself down a steep bank to peer at a bug or wanders in front of me, humming. And he speaks in full sentences and makes hilarious observations about bins and boobs and cats. He’s great company at the moment.But I still find it really hard work. Enjoyable. But knackering. And I keep turning the question over in my mind, why do I experience it as so full-on?
I get that it has something to do with emotional or invisible labour. Caring for another, even if it is largely pleasant and in the sun, is still really hard work. Maybe for me, it is the role of parenting itself, the role of being always-needed, never equal, always on call, always responsible for the well-being of another. It’s a big ask, relationally. Maybe it’s more manageable in small doses. Child rearing is not small doses though -it’s in 12 hour doses and overnight, twenty four hour, decade-long doses.
Perhaps the thing that excites me about parenting is also the thing that exhausts me. I feel so privileged to have been there since the beginning. What a privilege to have such a say in how someone relates to others and to themselves, to be able to lay down neural networks and spark attachment systems and create a worldview. I have loved the chance to think about someone’s emotional life so carefully, to learn to hold another’s soul lightly in my fingertips. To say I haven’t enjoyed that or that it hasn’t consumed me in some ways would be disingenuous. I have poured myself into thinking about his internal world, trying to get the balance right between giving him privacy and autonomy and free rein to explore while also remaining attentive to him, acknowledging his feelings and being his emotional kidneys, his witness. It is a pleasure to lavish so much attention on someone, to watch him bask in my gaze, to know I’m giving someone guts and soul just by being in the room and being so present. It is absorbing work, but I arrive at the other end of twelve hours, spent.
And I crave other adult company. Even hanging out with a friend at the sandpit so it’s not just me and R changes the dynamic in a really useful way. If I unpack this, it is not just the garden variety nuclear family loneliness generated by our culture, although that is there too, but the possibility of being in two different roles, two different relational spaces at once. Mum and friend. Hanging out with other adults is a relief. I trust that they don’t need me, that I don’t have to be anyone else’s emotional kidneys and process their feelings with them, I’m not responsible for reflecting back their reality to them. Even if I’m listening to someone pour out their heart, I ultimately do not really have any influence on the trajectory of their choices the way I do with my kid- I’m not in charge or their psychic development, which is a relief. I can banter and play and play rough and be frank with other adults- I can trust we are all grown ups- I don’t have to hold their soul in my fingertips the way I do with R.
And I think that sensibility- the fragility and the bearing of another human’s mind- is what makes parenting so delicious and intense and privileged but also why it’s the most knackering thing I’ve ever done and why I seem to need so much time to myself, so much time away, so many breaks and so much more grown-up company than I’ve ever needed before. Care taking is gorgeous, but I want it bracketed off and contained, with sharp edges and boundaries of where it begins and ends and when will I be free to hand over his soul for someone else to hold for a few hours so I can experience being not -needed? Being so needed is so seductive. I get the allure. But caring also might eat me alive if it is my main relational diet, If I don’t intentionally seek to switch out of a role of responsibility-towards and seek the company of people I feel no duty towards. And to all my friends who have come and met me in the park while I’ve cared for my son and provided adult company, you know who you are, and I’m so grateful.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018