I came across this story on the blog of a good college friend. I read it, left it, and found it wouldn’t let me go; it spoke so elegantly to my own experience with parenting. With permission of the author, I’m reposting here. Enjoy! – andrea
by Caroline Cummins
During my freshman year of college, I had an intense dream in which I was dying in a hospital emergency room while trying to give birth. The dream shifted tracks, as dreams will, and suddenly I was outside the OR, watching the doctors, looking at my swollen and yet also shrunken body, and I knew that I was dead. The baby was gone, whisked away by doctors, and my body was left alone on a gurney.
Another doctor happened to be standing next to me, watching through the porthole windows in the doors of the OR. Nonplussed by the fact that I was looking at my dead self, I asked him, “Will I be OK?”
He nodded. “Oh, sure, you’re going to be just fine,” he assured me.
I woke up scared and bewildered, and mentioned it later to a sophomore who happened to be a psychology major. He laughed and said, “Oh, that dream is so obvious!” (He was a much wiser, older sophomore, of course.) I demanded that he explain what he meant, and he replied, “It’s a typical freshman dream — you’re leaving your old life behind and starting a new one, so the new you is being born. And you’re scared to say goodbye to the old you and meet the new you. But you will, and it will be fine, which is why the doctor told you so.”
Neither of us, at that point, had become parents, so we didn’t know that the first year or so of having a child is analogous to the first year or so of college. The old you has vanished, and the new you has to figure out a new way of living.
One of the biggest challenges, both in college and in parenthood, is learning how to think anew. The first summer we had Delphine, we made a date to meet some friends at a farmers’ market. We got ready (a process that, then and now, can take up to an hour) and headed out the door to a sunny Saturday and the discovery that vandals had smashed our rear windshield in the night.
Once upon a time, I would’ve willingly tackled this bother along with the logistics of trying to get to the market without a car. But as a parent of a four-month-old, my brain basically shut down.
“We can’t go,” I said flatly.
“Of course we can,” answered Caleb, brilliant husband that he is. “We’ll just take the bus.”
The bus! What a good idea. But then my slow brain caught up. “We can’t buy anything if we take the bus,” I countered. “How will we carry home several flats of berries on the bus?”
“We won’t buy berries today,” said Caleb.
And that was that. We caught the bus, met our friends, and bought very little, all of which got crushed on the crowded bus ride home. We had problem-solved!
But it had all felt so very arduous. Of necessity, new parents have to be flexible in new ways, working from minute to minute to make sure their child is happy, safe, clean, fed, watered, entertained, challenged, and the like. And yet this flexibility is not a skill most of us have ever had to practice.
A few months ago, I asked a friend, a professional musician with a son about Delphine’s age, how she managed to find time to practice. “Oh, I don’t practice anymore,” she answered. “I don’t need to.”
I was slightly dazed by this, until I found myself doing a phone interview for work and, literally, phoning it in. Not that I didn’t conduct a good, thorough interview; I simply realized that, because I’ve done so many phone interviews as a working journalist, I don’t have to practice them. I can just perform them.
Which, in a way, is the single greatest argument for postponing parenthood until you’ve worked at a chosen career for a while. When that baby shows up, it’s easier if you can run your career on autopilot for a while as you learn the new gig of parenthood. Parenting — a different way of being flexible in the world — is the skill you now have to practice, and learning it takes all your concentration.
Of course, not everybody who goes to college finds it satisfying or even finishes it. And, sadly, the same is true of parenting. We all need reassurance as parents, because we all know we might become those parents who flunk out, whose kids are swallowed by the foster-care system or worse. I never liked practicing music, after all; it was plenty boring, and I had plenty of temper tantrums about it. But I can’t apply shirking and violence to child-rearing, much as I might sometimes wish to. I’m just hoping for a passing grade.