For some reasons, parenting is the domain of horror stories. If you survive the pain of childbirth, the mythology goes, followed by the agony of constant sleep deprivation and the tedium of endless crying and peeing and pooing, what lies ahead is several years of monosyllabic conversation and unfettered expense. I have a friend, in fact, who declares that when her friends give birth, she refuses to see them for at least the next four years, as they are so unbearable to be around.
I recall once, when I was in my mid-20’s, seeing a cluster of new mothers gathered and exchanging the arcana of motherhood at a braai. My boyfriend at the time attempted to get involved in the conversation. One of them turned to him and snapped: “Do you have kids?” He shook his head. “Then you can’t possibly understand,” she sighed, turning her back to him.
Determined not to be sucked in by a vortex of sighing and complaining, I set out to find likeminded mums-to-be, the ones that approached their children as fellow adventurers, not as energy-draining pets that required training. And, with gratitude, I discovered that in the universe of childcare, there are alternatives to everything. Just like there are alternatives to hospital birth (see here for the story of my lovely home birth), to prams and buggies (slings and baby carriers), to cots and cradles (co-sleeping and babywearing), there are alternatives to every parenting strategy under the sun. For those who have faith in routine and discipline, there are the Gina Fords of the world; for those of us that believe that you can treat children like humans (and friendly ones at that), there are the Sears books and Alfie Kohn and Jean Liedloff and the like.
A while ago I was around a lovely crowd of of what I’ll call alternative parents. The ones that know all those alternatives and embrace them. They’re cheerful and relaxed, as friendly to their children as they are to one another. You never hear them yelling “No!” or “Stop that!” We met in a lovely garden in the middle of a big, open park. The idea was to go for a walk, but the skies were filled with heavy clouds. Two three-year-olds ran around happily yelling at each other as they got themselves full of mud and rain. The mums found some shelter under an arbour at the edge of the garden. It all seemed idyllic. Well, except that I was a bit cold and wet, and a little anxious that Kolya was getting cold and wet. No one else seemed anxious in the least: it was as if their babies played delightedly in the rain every day. I had to suppress the urge to make a beeline back to the warm, dry car.
It was encouraging and reassuring to be around women that recognised the resilience of their children. Children don’t melt in the rain, and there’s a lot to be said for spending the afternoon tromping around in a muddy garden.
But something jarred, and badly. After about half an hour, I realised that these parents talk about little else besides… parenting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big and worthy topic. But not the only one, surely. The conversation was peppered with little morsels of code: “It’s very CC”; “Oh, we’re EC-ing”; “Yes, she’s another carrier”; “I mean, you’re aiming for NVC, but it’s not always possible”. After a while I was gasping inwardly for someone to mention, like, anything… be it the credit crisis or Revlon’s latest nail polish colours… anything besides all this parenting jargon.
It reminded me of when I was 15, and used to make sure that in any conversation I mentioned that I was Vegetarian. God, did I ever want everyone to know. Later, when veggie food was simply part of the normal run of things in my life, I wished that I DIDN’T have to discuss or explain it every time I met someone new.
I’m proud of my parenting choices (so far so good, anyway), and I will happily discuss them and consider them at length. But justifying oneself over and over again is oh-so-tiring. The next T-shirt I get printed will say DON’T TRY SO HARD.