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What They Never Teach You About Parenting

Reflections on the "radiant agony" of parenting.

Key points

  • Children present us with pressing existential paradoxes.
  • Despite profound attachment to their kids, parents can anxiously search for their identity in a life that can become unrecognizable.

As the sun sets on the pond, my small boy swings his net so hard he stumbles into the water. "Mama!" he hollers. "Did you know dragonflies are 350 million years old?"

"Really?" I look up.

"Mama, when will I be 350 million years old?"

Like a song I know by heart, I mindlessly launch into "That's a good question. But I don't..."

He interrupts, "What's older: A dragonfly or the universe?"

Sign me up for "Jeopardy" because yo' girl knows this one.

The universe, my sweet child. The universe.

Amber Currin/Pexels
The Radiant Agony of Parenting
Source: Amber Currin/Pexels

Sufficiently satisfied, he begins picking seaweed out of his shoe.

In a universe 14 billion years in the making, he is on the eve of his 6th.

As a neuropsychologist, I'm acutely aware that his brain's most spectacular developmental performance, conducted between the holy ages of 0-5, have come to a close. In these most wondrous of years, more than a million neural connections are formed every second.

Was I—in that tiniest sliver of time—a good enough steward of those countless connections?

For our children, it will be this early neurologic foundation on which the whole of their consciousness shall arise: the joy they hold, the dreams they have, and the pain they carry.

But as our children undergo their great neurologic becoming, it can often feel like our own sacred undoing.

I've worked with many mothers and fathers who, while steadfastly devoted to these tiny humans, become unmoored, confused by a life that seemed so certain only moments ago.

For example, since the arrival of my child, I no longer understand time. How can it be that so many moments are now both interminably long and unbearably short?

Children, in many ways, remind us that the impossible is possible.

But in the making of miracles, it's quite impossible for people to prepare you for such supernatural events. No matter how many books you read or studies you review, nothing can fully prepare you for such a cataclysmic shift in your understanding of time, your body, and your Self.

In my case, for instance, I don't care how many pictures of cantaloupe they showed me, I'm still trying to figure out what exactly happened to my vagina.

Mostly though, I'm trying to figure out what happened to my heart.

For the briefest flash of time, this tiny child, the one who turns everything into a ballistic, and me, the one who likes long stretches of uninterrupted time and not being hit in the head with flying objects, have been assigned to co-participate in the miracle.

And on the eve of his 6th birthday, I can't stop thinking that there's only two more rounds—two more 6's—and then this child, the one who devastated me with his coming will devastate me with his leaving.

In moments so fleeting they could bring me to my knees if I looked long enough, he and I choose to spend our waning moments catching ancient bugs, chasing ice cream trucks, and seeing what happens if you put Pop Rocks up your nose (0/5; do not recommend).

Most of my time, though, is spent trying to bear the unbearable brightness of this love. Of all the paradoxes in my life, it is the commitment of parenting that is the greatest: a bond so deep it suffocates while it expands.

Nothing could prepare me for the unrelenting relentlessness of it all.

"Mama," he claps my attention back to where he always wants it, "Do you think if I try hard enough, I can hit the moon?" Ballistics again. This time rocks are launched from his net.

I'm still shocked by the trauma of it all. I call it the radiant agony of parenting.

We watch the moon rise and play with fireflies before turning in for the night.

I awake at dawn.

In the soft shadow of dawn's gorgeous light, I see a wet, muddy shoe. In a few moments, he will wake up and ask me to contemplate a million impossible things—like how many brachiosauruses can fit in a black hole and how it can be that we have just one lifetime together?