Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

August 06, 2001

How to know you're ready to be a parent

Lucy is almost a year old. It’s a little late, but I’m starting to wonder if I was really ready to be a parent.

I thought I was, of course. I had everything I thought I needed: a happy marriage, solid finances and a sincere desire to dress someone tiny in cute things. Someone besides my husband’s cat.

As it turns out, these things are not enough.

What you also need, if you’re going to be a parent, is tough skin. And I’m not speaking metaphorically here. As it turns out, baby fingernails are really sharp and difficult to trim. I’ve spent several months of Lucy’s first year covered in wee scabs that Lucy has given me while nursing intently, trying to avoid going into the crib, or maybe just checking me for fleas.

She does the same things to the pets, although I do not have their coat of protective fur, except on my legs, which I no longer have time to shave regularly. Why can’t Lucy just scratch those? I don’t know. It’s not as if she doesn’t try. Or perhaps the long leg hair is working its magic. Either way, Lucy hangs on my pant leg almost constantly as she perfects the art of walking. Why, just last week, she pulled my pajama bottoms right off.

Which brings me to another thing you need to be a parent: pants that stay up. When you’re nursing, you have to get used to flashing your breasts in public regularly. Not everyone appreciates it, but most enlightened people are willing to support a baby’s right to eat in public, even if that includes a little unbidden boob now and then. I don’t know of anyone, however, who feels the same way about pants coming down. This is the sort of thing people call the police over. And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s a little humiliating, because you’re still wearing the same stretched-out underwear you wore when you were pregnant and refused to buy spanky pants.

Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned one needs to be a parent: a total loss of pride.

Many, many times, you’ll find yourself within earshot of other adults saying things like, “Yes. See the birdie. Birdie flies and lands on tree. Tree is green and full of birds. Birds!” It wouldn’t be so bad if babies held up their part of the conversation. But they don’t. You end up sounding like one of those people who says, “Enough about me, though. What do YOU think of me?”

There’s a variation on the pride theme. And that is acceptance — acceptance that other people will frequently think you’re having delusions of prodigy. When your baby learns tricks, such as clapping, saying “hi,” and pointing to the pig in her Barnyard Dance book, she will NEVER do this in front of an audience. Everyone will think you’re just imagining she really can do these things. Which in some cases is probably true. After all, everyone who’s ever had a baby knows what it’s like to have the world’s most beautiful and talented child. It’s a miracle, a freakin’ miracle.

Have I mentioned, by the way, that Lucy can snap her fingers? She is only 11 months old and she can snap! It’s stunning. Probably a Guinness record. If there were a Snap-Olympics, she’d take the gold. But there isn’t a Snap-Olympics, and really no discernable market for babies who can snap.

And this brings me to the next thing you need to have before you become a parent: acceptance of their flaws. It took me 30 years to achieve perfection myself. As a mother, I am giving Lucy 10 years to do the same. I don’t know what I’ll do in 10 years if she isn’t perfect. I’m pretty attached to her, and don’t imagine I’ll try to sell her on Ebay or anything.

But it does bring to mind another quality parents really ought to have: flexibility. You can be a very, very organized person coming into the parenthood game. You can be so good at getting things that people regularly compliment you on this trait. If you have a job outside the house, it’s the sort of thing that gets you nice, fat raises. You might even get addicted to that “I’m done!” sensation.

You have to get over this.

With a baby, and I’m just betting, with a child, nothing is ever really done. It’s just momentarily stable. If you’re lucky. Changed the diaper? Guess what. She just pooped. Washed her toys? Guess what. The dog is slobbering on Buzzy Bee. Dishes done? Not any more. Baby just had a sippy cup of milk. And then she threw it on the floor you just cleaned, and the lid came off and the cat walked through it and now there is milk between the kitchen and the family room. Also, the baby wants carpet time, which means you need to be there to make sure she doesn’t bonk her head, bite the lamp cord, or make the cat do something everyone will later regret.

The benefit of this, of course, is that babies enjoying carpet time are adorable. Especially when you turn into a tickle monster and they laugh until they collapse under the weight of all that hilarity. They’re even more adorable when you say, “Where’s your ball?” and they crawl and get it. Genius is cute! As good as snapping, if not better.

I’m not saying there are no fringe benefits of parenting. It’s just that you can’t get into this game expecting your life will go from good to perfect. If anything, it’ll go from good to seriously messed up.

If you’re like the silent, skulking majority for example, you won’t have had a good night’s sleep since before the baby was born. Of course, you hear about those infants who start sleeping through the night at six weeks. And, although they’re probably just such dullards they wouldn’t be interested in the world around them if it was shaped like a giant, leaking nipple, it doesn’t make you feel all that much better that you’re raising a genius, because the 2 a.m. screaming has left you with seriously diminished hearing. In fact, you might not even be able to enjoy her playing violin concertos in two years if this continues.

When you start thinking like that, though, you just have to feel glad you mastered the concept of “one day at a time” before you became a parent. You can’t worry about today’s hearing loss ruining tomorrow’s recital. More generally, if you’re stuck in the middle of a difficult day — let’s say, a teething day, or the kind of day that happens after baby has eaten a lot of corn — you can’t give in to your fear that all is lost and you will never shower before noon again. Rather, it’s just this day you’re living that is tough. Tomorrow is sure to be easier, for tonight, almost certainly, your baby will sleep straight through.

Mastering the art of taking things one day at a time is easiest when you’ve also cultured with a healthy ability for denial. Is minivan ownership starting to look attractive to you? No! You’re just developing more appreciation for old people — people with kids in elementary school. Did you just lick your finger and wipe graham cracker off your baby’s face? Of course not! It just might have looked that way to someone who doesn’t understand how something like this could happen on accident. Is that poop on your arm? Nope! You’re just going to scrub that wet lint with antibacterial soap for kicks, that’s all.

And speaking of kicks, it’s probably a good idea to define “going to Costco” as a date with your husband before you have a child, so it won’t feel that lame when a trip to Costco actually is a date. Adam and I had a great one yesterday. It even cost the same as a really, really nice dinner out with friends: $300. We spent $30 on diapers, which is about what a decent bottle of wine costs. A bottle of wine, or a month’s supply of diapers — I say, the diapers are a lot more fun, especially because it now sometimes takes two people to change Lucy when she’s feeling like going on a clothing strike.

Lucy was on just such a clothing strike last week when Adam and I decided to give her a bath. The sound of running water inspired her, and she wet all over me. Before I had a child, being peed on would have gone on my list of 10 Things I Will Never Stand For.

Now, though, I stood for it. And I didn’t stop standing until Lucy was in the tub, Adam was bathing her, and it was safe for me to change pants. Along with many other gross things, getting peed on is a lot better than watching the news. Because invariably when you watch, you hear a story about something awful happening to someone else’s child. And then, before you know it, you find yourself blinking back tears, because you can understand someone else’s pain in a way you never could before. This is where the day stops for a moment, and you cross your heart and pray that nothing ever happens to your child.

Everything else about being a parent you can learn on the way — the patience, the acceptance, the laughter in the face of chaos and depravity. But that one lesson is the hardest: how to live with the knowledge that the best thing you’ve ever known — the best part of you, really — will soon be walking. And eventually, she’ll walk places you can’t protect her.

Are you ready for that? Can anyone ever be?


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