Last week at the playground I watched a mom execute a parenting decision so correctly that I stared with open-mouthed wonder. The woman’s daughter did not want to wear a helmet to ride her friend’s scooter. The helmet was at home but the loaner scooter was readily available, and now mother and daughter were in a standoff. To be fair, several other kids were zipping around the playground without helmets on and this must have been disorienting for the little girl. There were exceptions to the rule all around her. Yet the mom was unwavering.
The little girl cried. She cried very loud. People watched, though we tried to do it discretely. Cool and calm the mother stood there with arms crossed, apologizing to no one, quietly reinforcing the rule to her daughter.
When I looked over again, I noticed the mother was walking home and leaving the little girl behind with her dad at the park. I assumed that the standoff was concluded and that the mother had gone home to celebrate her victory with three uninterrupted minutes of silent wine consumption.
I was wrong.
Ten minutes later she returned with a helmet, like a hero, like a really good mom. She had walked all the way home to get it. Her daughter put it on and rode the scooter for no more than sixteen seconds. Then she wanted to go on the slide. Slides do not require helmets. And so the whole exhausting scene was the price for 16 seconds of satisfaction. Really, it was the price for a reinforced family rule.
That mom held the line.
What I’m noticing now as a newborn parent of a growing toddler is that that it’s quite hard to hold the line. Instead of keeping my cool, I often defer to laughing at inopportune moments or bracing for a slap that I’m certain my toddler is about to deliver.
This line-holding comes as a surprise because in the first year or so of parenting your job is solely to pacify your child. Oh you’re unhappy? Here’s milk. Here’s a boob. Here, I’ll hold you/pat you/burp you/cradle you/sing to you all night long. Gross, I’ll change you’re diaper. Oh you’re angry? Here, I’ll distract you! Another toy! Another game! Something shiny!
But then suddenly the game totally changes. Your child tries to do something dangerous like stick a crayon into a power outlet or wander alone into the street or feed the contents of a dirty diaper to your dog. And suddenly you realize that your main job is not to pacify. It’s to set a line and hold it. Actually, it’s setting lots of lines followed by lots of muscular holding.
In most areas of my life, I tend to be accommodating to a fault. I tend to say “I’m sorry” instead of “Excuse me.” If I bump into a stranger, I’ll ask them six times if they’re alright. And by extension, I want to be an accommodating parent, the sort of effortless child whisperer that compels a child to obey with the sheer grandiosity of my kindness. I’d like to parent my child with my eyes or with my vibe. I’d like to travel along the path of least resistance, to go belly first down a sleep-and-slide of child rearing.
But it turns out that the inconvenient friction of discipline is the most essential practice of parenthood. Vibe parenting isn’t actually a thing.
The hardest place for me to hold the line is at the grocery store, the place I call “The Labyrinth of Screaming.” Molly thinks that remaining seated in the shopping cart is optional. It is not. This is the line. But usually after about fifteen minutes of repeating the phrase, “SIT ON YOUR BOTTOM,” I give up and carry her on my hip while trying to navigate a cart unevenly weighted by a racecar attachment that is literally the bane of my existence.
Yesterday, I decided it was time to enforce the line. We went to the grocery store. I buckled Molly in. Within a few moments she began screaming like an imprisoned baby dinosaur. It was the shrill sort of scream that penetrates your ears so deeply your jaw aches. Her face turned molten red. Her back arched and her arms splayed wide as if she was breaking the finish line tape of a footrace. Lots of strangers felt sorry for me. More felt sorry for Molly.
But then something miraculous happened. Molly remained in her seat. I did not carry her. We survived. And although people were watching the debacle, the only sideways looks I caught from strangers were decidedly compassionate. At the checkout, a woman encouraged me to go ahead of her in line, “Since the little one looks like she’s out of patience.” The cashier was upbeat and incredibly efficient in checking me out. And as I was wrestling the still-crying Molly into her car seat with the empty shopping basket propped against the back of the car, in my peripheral vision I noticed a woman return it for me.
I drove home feeling insulated in grace, as if God had orchestrated protective bumpers around the line that I was so feebly trying to hold.
I know that parenthood is hard, that in a lot of ways it’s constant behavioral warfare, but there are also these moments of grace, as if you are traveling on momentum you didn’t initiate. Sometimes it is a woman who lets you cut her in line or a cashier that is mercifully efficient at his job. Sometimes it is a moment of clarity in knowing which line to hold or the humility to walk home for a helmet. And sometimes it is being around other parents that spectacularly lead you by example.
I suppose we are all being parented in one way or another, enduring productive friction that grows us in maturity. Just when I think parenting is easy, I’m challenged with a new line to hold. And just when I think it’s pure difficulty, I’m interrupted with surprise mercies, as if Someone rushes in to hold my hand each time I don’t know how to safely cross the road.