“Will the bad guys be there?” my three-and-a-half-year-old casually asks as he sits crossed legged on our bed flipping through a Paw Patrol book. I’ve just informed him with 7 a.m.-variety enthusiasm that we’re going to his first school-friend birthday party later that day. It’s not a question my husband and I were anticipating as we glance at each other from our respective pillows and say as much as we can with our eyebrows. Facial expressions, spelling, and miming have become our communication styles of choice these days with little ears always listening. We’re brushing up on our Spanish for when they learn to spell, and once they catch on to the concept of sarcasm, we’ll have to start having our disagreements via email.
“What bad guys?” I ask as I brush a piece of thick brown hair out of his eyes.
“The ones from school. The ones that don’t like me,” he answers without looking up from his book.
I sit up and shoot another look at my husband. Wide-eyed emoji look. My husband props himself up on his elbow. Inquisitive emoji look. I start silently debating with myself whether continuing my line of questioning will give this too much weight, or if not pressing further will make him think we don’t care. They are preschoolers after all, an age where even the most minor of infractions can result in hurt feelings.
“Did they not want to play with you?” I ask, unable to stop myself. “Because that doesn’t mean they don’t like you,” I continue. “Sometimes you don’t want to play with your sister, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like her.”
He jumps off the bed and starts building a pillow fort. He yanks a pillow from underneath my husband’s arm as I attempt my final question. “Did they say they don’t like you?”
“I didn’t ask them,” he responds.
So this is parenting.
Six months before this conversation I sat next to my husband on a metal folding chair in the basement of a church. A green folder rested open on my lap. I thumbed through the sheets as the preschool director talked about drop off/pick up lines, snow days and nut-free snacks.
Ask about active shooter procedures, whispered the little voice in my head. But it seemed too dramatic. This was preschool after all.
Sandy Hook, the voice reminded me. But I didn’t say anything.
I berated myself the entire drive to work for not speaking up.
Better safe than sorry, the little voice persisted.
As soon as I got to work, I emailed the director. Subject line: Active shooter question. No, too direct. D-e-l-e-t-e. Subject line: Orientation follow-up question. There, much less terrifying.
So this is parenting.
I got pregnant with my daughter when my son was seven months old. With both of my pregnancies, my concerns were shortsighted. Almost all of the worry that consumed my mind in those early days centered around caring for a tiny baby, and then caring for another tiny baby with a medium-sized baby at home. There was the garden variety worry—are they eating enough, is their poop the right color, etc. And then the bigger concerns like SIDS and choking. I didn’t give much thought to raising them at that point. I mean actually parenting them in the world.
“It wasn’t this hard when you were a kid,” my mom’s voice echoes through my car’s Bluetooth as I pull out of the school parking lot. I’m convinced that is 50% rose-colored glasses and 50% truth.
I remember third grade as if it were yesterday—new school, mean girls, lunches spent in the nurse’s office with a stomach ache. I remember sitting on my parent’s bed before school crying because I didn’t want to go. I remember one girl telling me that her grandfather, the contractor who built my childhood home, could come with a bulldozer at any time and knock my house down. My 30-something self laughs at how silly that sounds. But third-grade me? She lay awake at night worrying she heard the sounds of a bulldozer. Rose-colored perhaps.
But the truth is, parenting has been and will probably always be, us against the world. And while the hopes and dreams parents have for their children may not have changed since I was little, the world has changed. I’ve reached this place of actual parenting much sooner than I ever thought I would, and I feel a real push and pull going on between me and the world around my little family.
There’s a phrase in the lyrics of a song by The Avett Brothers that plays on a loop in my head—Life with its loveliness, and all of its ugliness. It’s a dichotomy that challenges me as a parent to walk gracefully between the two sides, with a basket on my arm and a bat in my hand to gather the good and ward off the bad for my children. But in doing so, I’m also called more importantly to teach them how to do the same for themselves. How to be cautious, but not fearful. How to care for others without losing themselves. How to be strong, yet soft. How to use their voices—sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly. How to forgive and be forgiven. How to believe in themselves. How to believe in this broken world, and find the courage to change it.
It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.
So this is parenting.
Guest post written by Lauren Kitson. Lauren is a full-time mama and part-time social media strategist, trying to fill the space in between with a little creativity and the occasional sheet mask. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, 4-year-old son, and 3-year-old daughter. You can find more of her writing here.
Photo by N’tima Preusser.