Friday, August 15, 2008

Internalizing parenthood

Thanks to everyone for understanding my need to write about Kathy in my last blog post. Some people just make that kind of impression on you, you know?

It got me thinking about how we change when we become parents. Maybe not on the outside (er, well, except that lovely post-pregnancy body that some of us have going...cough...months, years later...). But inside, yes. For me, it was imperceptible at first, mostly just a seed inside me, obscured by my general exhaustion. Eventually, it took root and flourished.

It was a gradual process. Miller and I recently had a conversation about it. Are we still the same self that we were prior to having children? The same self that we were ten, or even twenty, years ago? Do we still contain, at heart, the essence of the self that we have always been? I think so. I know she does, at any rate, and I'm pretty sure I do. But has my lens through which I view the world been altered in some way? Not radically changed, but altered by the perspective of being a parent. Absolutely. Not overnight. Not even in a few months. But it has happened. I expect it will continue to evolve as my child gets older.

I've mentioned time and again how I react much differently to the thought of children in danger now than I did before I was a mother; I can no longer purely look at something as an abstraction but instead feel a visceral sense of panic. I always threaten to walk out of a movie if something terrible happens to a child, and believe me, it's not just an idle threat. In fact, in some ways, I feel like I react more viscerally to a lot of things now. Many things seem to nudge the mama bear inside of me, making me instinctively rear back not just at potential danger but at anything that could potentially threaten my family's existence as it is now. When a sports announcer mentioned a few nights ago during the Olympics coverage that the Chinese usually take prospective gymnasts away from their families at age three to begin the intensive training it requires to become a world-class athlete, I remarked flatly to David, "Someone could take away my three-year-old son from me when they pried my cold dead fingers off of him."

But then sometimes, I have to make a conscious effort to not just react as a parent but to behave like a good parent. I have to stop and think now about whether I am behaving in a way that I would want my child to emulate. Am I really acting like a good role model? Sometimes I don't want to, but I have to, and that's really hard. (See: Times when someone does something exceptionally rude, like cut me off in traffic.) I even have to censor my words, now that William is old enough to really understand what I'm saying. I'm trying to not say words like "stupid" and "hate" because I really don't want him to say those words, particularly before he's old enough to understand the pain that they can inflict when wielded against someone else. I learned that the hard way when I muttered, "Stupid bunnies" at the evil tomato-murdering rabbits that lurk in my backyard; a few seconds later, the cheerful echo of "stupid bunnies! stupid bunnies! stupid bunnies!" came back to haunt me.

I am at once stronger and more vulnerable now than I can ever remember being. Do I view Kathy's death differently once I became a parent? Yes. It was always a tragedy. It always took my breath away. But once I became a parent and internalized the knowledge that I am a parent and incorporated it into my self, I could no longer just mourn the loss of my dear friend but also ache for the mother who lost her own child.

P.S. Sorry for the horrible post title. I know it sounds like a boring parenthood self-help book. But I was fresh out of good ideas. I had my mind on other things.

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