The parenting fairy tale: When I have a child, I will finally know what love is. Having a child will complete our family. I will know joy so big it can fill the whole world. A child is a mirror into my own soul. My new baby will fit so wonderfully into my world. When I finally have a child, I will know who I am and what I am all about. I will watch my child grow and thrive, and then I will watch them have their own children, and soon I will be the matriarch of this large and loving, growing and thriving family. And they will ride off into the distance on a beautiful horse….
Oh, the dreams we dream about what it will be like to be a parent. And sometimes it is those things.
Except when it’s not.
Despite the fact that most of us end up in therapy complaining about relationships with our own parents, we build sand castle dreams about what having a child means to us. Despite the fact that movies and literature and songs and poems are filled to the brim with painful experiences and stories of both parenting and being parented, we cling to epic fantasies about what it means to be a parent. Despite the number of parenting books that tell us how hard it really is, we build fairy tale myths about having a child that resonate so deeply with our subconscious that we hardly know they are there at all.
The child fairy tale: Family dreams of child. Family waits for child. Family gets child. And it is so good. Family goes skipping through daisies hand in hand.
Oh, the dreams we can dream about what our children will be like. And sometimes they are those things.
Except when they aren’t.
The fairy tale myths of happily-ever-after relationships depict a battle or struggle built around getting to the relationship or finding the right person or overcoming obstacles like dragons or evil villains that would prevent us from being with our true love. But once we prevail, and we have nailed down our mate, then our journey is over and all that is left to do is bask in love. The sweet-sweet, running through tulips kind of love. No more struggle, no more battle. It’s happily ever after.
Thankfully, we are starting to understand just how significant this myth is when it comes to romantic partnerships. We are coming to understand that the real quest, battle and struggle come once the dragon has been slayed and love is actually available to us. When we look our happily-ever-after straight in the eye and say “okay, let’s do this tulip-skipping thing,” we go left and they go right and before we even take our first skip we have to figure out how to negotiate in which direction we are actually going. Yep, the actual work starts then. And, as it turns out, there is way more negotiating than skipping.
And so it goes with parenting.
We dream, we plan, we fret over wallpaper and sheets for the crib. We ponder names and wait for kissable toes and worry about every minute leading up to the birth. We slay the dangerous dragons with outlet covers and cabinet locks, and we await the moment when our baby will arrive and the happily-ever-after part will begin. When we can bask and glow and love and love and love and…..
Except that the reality is that parenting is more work than glow. When we give up the myth and really look at parenting, we realize that what we have is two (or three or four or more) human beings in relationship with each other. And at least one of those human beings is terrible at communicating in our language, has extreme difficulty with emotional regulation, is incredibly self-centered, needs an unimaginable amount of support to complete even the simplest of daily tasks, and is excessively preoccupied with their own body’s needs. (I am actually talking about our babies, but I am sure many of us may be tempted to raise an eyebrow in the direction of our partners as well, or if we are really honest, at ourselves.)
And that fairy tale myth? About how it will be all love and starry-eyed gazing upon our offspring as they grow and thrive? Well… not so much. In reality, there is all the love and joy and fun and awe and amazement. But, parenting is also messy and exhausting and boring and tedious and lonely and disgusting and humiliating and much scarier than the dragon. And frustrating. Oh so frustrating. And the worst thing is that when we believe and expect the myth, then feeling these feelings just feels wrong.
But on the other hand, we figured out that that the “happily-ever-after” with our partner isn’t the period at the end of the sentence, but rather the opening to a long road of struggle and growth and challenges and joy and connection and pain and love and that all that IS the path. It IS the relationship. It IS the quest. It IS the love. If only we could take every “and they lived happily ever after” from every fairy tale ever written and replace it with “And so began the adventure” then we would know that the real juicy stuff is always yet to come. The relationship. That’s what’s ahead. That’s what we are in for.
So it goes with parenting. Parenting is all those things because it is a relationship with another person. It is an ongoing, never-ending path that two people walk, and skip, together. And the gross, painful, boring, frustrating dragon-slaying moments are just as precious and important as the joyful ones. Maybe even more so. Because it is in those terrible moments that we have the opportunity to sit back and say to our kids, “Wow, you are a human. And I get to be in a relationship with you.” And so began the adventure.