The toddler squirmed in his mother’s arms. “No, no, no, noooooo!” he said, putting his newfound vocabulary to work. My friend—his mom—was a vision of calm, offering him this or that, coaxing him out of her arms so she could eat her soup to stave off the damp London chill. “No!” is not his only word, but today it was his favourite. Later as she took him down the rickety stairs to change his diaper, he would throw up all over her, all over him, all over the walls.
I remember these days so vividly, pulling the stroller up and down steps, putting the squirmy bundle in and out of a snowsuit, coaxing a child to bed, or awake, or to school, or away from school. Parenting kids at this age is hard.
On the bus afterwards, a young mother with kids maybe 8 and 5. She was engaging and playful and the kids adorable. But traffic was slow and the bus ride dragged on and eventually they ran out of conversation, and the little boy began to play with the rubbish between the seats and push at his sister with all the force his tiny body could muster. No longer playful and engaged, now the weary mother’s voice was strained, the edge of anger barely sheathed. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the little family disembarked, but of course for her, the noise and tumult continued. I remembered this quest to entertain, to capture attention, to stave off conflict between two tiring siblings. Parenting kids at this age is hard.
At a cafe, a mother and her teenage daughter, both in Christmas garb, each looking at her own phone as the café breathed around them. I wondered whether they were fighting, and this was the stony cold silence of conflict, or whether this was the general quiet piece of the modern world. I wondered what they would talk about when they looked up from their devices. I remembered the silent dinners, the anger that emerged out of one misplaced question, the mystery moods of the teenager. Parenting kids at this age is hard.
My taxi driver chattered away as we pulled through the early morning rain. He talked about his daughter—now 42 and a doctor with three kids of her own. He was so proud of her he could hardly contain himself, the words tumbling out about this successful woman in a faraway town. Raised her himself, and those years were hard, but somehow they went so fast. Now he misses her every day. Parenting kids who are all grown up is hard.
Which I’m learning. Here I was at the National Gallery with my two children, drinking tea and eating quiche in between exhibits. Aidan, his impossibly long legs thrust sideways under the table, was worried about the essays he needs to start writing for grad school; Naomi, so beautiful I can hardly believe I’m related to her, was beginning to dread her long flight home. And I was trying to hold on to this ordinary extraordinary moment, my two kids in the same place, before we all went our separate ways. Naomi back to her oasis of an apartment in a city across the ocean. Aidan to his new flat—his first home without me—filled with things that used to be mine, things that I’ve never seen before. Me back to my strange new life in France.
Why do we even have children? I wondered. What was the nirvana we were reaching for? The long hard days—and longer, harder nights—that we slog through are for what arrival? Do we invest all of this energy when they’re small just to have them move away and leave giant holes in our hearts where they used to live?
These are obviously the wrong questions, but still my mind slipped back and forth over them, like my tongue over a sore tooth, prodding, feeling the ache of it. It’s all hard. All the stages are filled with difficulty and heartache. Why do so many of us choose to do this?
Then later we sat in my postage stamp of a hotel room, in this city where 30 days ago I had 3 bedrooms and a garden. Aidan’s long legs were a fire hazard here, stretching from one side of the room to the next; Naomi, somehow elegant in her pyjamas, curled up on my bed, the only other perch in the room. We talked of careers and holidays and adult life. We talked of philosophy and grad school and how hard it is to imagine the road ahead. We got sleepy and didn’t leave, didn’t want the night to end. And as I sat with these two smart, sparky adults, I could feel us all in another hotel room 15 years ago. I could see Aidan, his tiny plump legs pressed alongside mine, and Naomi, her snaggletooth grin and her favourite red sweatshirt. Back then, I loved those two children so much that I thought my heart would actually burst out of my body. And now, I somehow love them more.
So this is the stage at which parenting is glorious, I realised. That one 15 years ago and tonight. And the days before and all the days I am granted afterwards. All the stages. All glorious, all difficult in their own way. All tumbled and woven through with the deepest love I’ve ever known, perhaps the deepest love it is possible to know. This is the entire package, the difficulty, the brilliance, the crying, the finger-painted-pictures, the silence, the conversation, the vomit, the hugging as if your life depended on it. Because it does. All life depends on this, the love that passes from human to human, from generation to generation.
And now I’m back in France, the first home where I’ve lived without my children in 25 years. This is the next phase of parenting. The weave of difficulty and delight that has been with me these 25 years is here now, in an afternoon without the timbre of Aidan’s voice, without the lilt of Naomi’s laugh that creates a pure surge of joy in my body. The difficulties of this phase are in the empty spaces rather than in the sometimes overflowing overwhelm of earlier parenting. I am learning a new thing about love, still. Still learning, still loving. The point of parenthood is the same as the point of life. Presence, connection, breathing through the difficulty, and love. How do I forget this lesson so often? It’s always about love.
(Photo credit today: Tina Marie Devincenzo)