On lifelong challenges

February 23,2012
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

This one was always a favorite of mine, even if I'd forgotten I'd written it, actually, until just the other day!

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A blogger friend of mine wrote the other day about a recent study out there claiming that parenthood does not, in fact, bring joy and fulfillment,  that children are a source of misery and stress, and that raising them is a "lifelong challenge to your mental health." Where the data for this study came from is anyone's guess, actually, but I thought a lot about it yesterday--and about my blogger friend's counterpost as I sat during morning remarks at the faculty "development" workshops I attended. (I developed many thoughts during these workshops, so it was all good--mission accomplished.) I tend to think about my kids a lot when I'm at these workshops, because they're held three times/year in the same room in the same building. The first one I ever attended was when T. was a small baby, and every two hours I excused myself to go into the over-air-conditioned restroom to pump milk. I'd sit on the toilet seat with the pump attached to me and listen thoughtfully to the whirr-whirr and wonder what on earth I was doing there, perched on a toilet lid, pumping milk in a cramped stall.

But yesterday I thought about all the many positive and wonderful things that parenthood has brought me AND taught me. For as a parent I haven't been sitting back passively basking in the feelings of love and joy you get when you watch your children behave delightfully and you just want to scoop them up and kiss them and hold onto them forever. Being a parent is a lifelong learning process--a challenge, of course, as all learning is. Sometimes it gets ugly and exhausting, and it's dirty work. As I washed my hands in the bathroom sink yesterday, I looked in the mirror at my face, now a good seven years older than the face that had looked back at me those times when I pumped milk so diligently in the bathroom stall. I thought about every little thing my kids have taught me, and about the big things, too.

I have learned about courage:

When my daughter was six months old and in the hospital recovering from her surgery, she refused to nurse at all for four days post-op. I pumped milk faithfully, every two hours, and stored the little vials of precious liquid in a large refrigerator near the nurses' station. On that Thursday of surgery week at 3:30 a.m., T. woke me up (I was lying next to her in the hospital bed, which I fought hard to get the nurses to bring in to exchange for the institutional metal crib) and fussed and thrashed a bit. I picked her up, negotiating the tangle of IV lines, and tried to nurse her. And, to my surprise, she feebly started sucking. Then her eyes opened a bit wider in surprise and she looked at me and it was as if everything clicked back into place again. I held her against me and she nursed and nursed and only then did I cry, after all those days of holding it inside; only then did I realize not only the extent of her courage, but mine as well.

Stamina and Strength:

You never realize how much stamina you do have (piles and piles of untapped stamina) until you pace the kitchen floor, alone, with a wide-awake baby, your body aching to curl back up into your bed, and the floor feeling hard under your feet. But you walk and rock and sing, and just when you think you have no more stamina at all--not an ounce of it--your baby is asleep. And then you do it over again a few hours later, and then you get up and go to work and, tired as you are, you still think about your baby constantly, your mind back in that dark kitchen, where you are rocking and singing.

And if you're a parent, you have to be strong for other people, even when you don't feel like it. You do this constantly, until it becomes almost second nature, and then you realize that you are strong--much stronger than you thought you were before you became a parent. And it's the kind of strength that has nothing to do with how much laundry you can carry upstairs, or how heavy a screaming four-year-old is when you carry her off to her room, but about a deep strength inside that could go on and on.

Love:

There are, of course, so many different ways to love. If I didn't have my kids, I'd only know how to love a few ways--all good ways, of course, but the love you have for your children is something entirely different from any other type of love. Once you do know this love, it gets transferred across to all the other ways you love, making those richer and better than they would otherwise have been. It's like being given a key to a secret room and once you unlock it, everything you do is made so much better by it.

You also learn what it means to love during the worst of times--those times when your child makes you see red, or says "I hate you," or accidentally-on-purpose damages your favorite picture, or your favorite anything. The love is still there, steady as ever, waiting out the storm.

Patience:

You have to be patient to be a parent. You can be an impatient parent, of course, and you can have huge moments of impatience, as sometimes happens to me. But even at those moments, you're practicing patience--trust me. Also, you learn that while patience does run thin at times (it's not a bottomless well, of course), somehow it refills itself over night, and you wake up with lots of it again. And sometimes you need it all, and sometimes not much of it, but it seems to work out in the end that there's always just enough.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that I can't imagine life without my kids--I can't imagine waking up each day and not having them around me, with all their noisiness and quirks and the chaos that flutters around them like Pigpen's dust cloud. I think the thought of life without them is dark and depressing, and that, THAT--that thought itself--would be a terrible lifelong challenge to my mental health.