Our son and his wife had a baby almost three weeks ago. After a flurry of activity right at delivery, everyone is home and resting and healing and getting used to each other. They’re in a beautiful little bubble of family.
I was not prepared for the experience of watching my son become a parent. That part took me completely by surprise. From the moment they announced the pregnancy through the delivery, I’ve seen him go through massive changes, the usual ones that accompany such a step in a person’s life.
I’m going to stipulate that women by far go through the most painful and radical metamorphoses in pregnancy and childbirth. For right now, my focus is on seeing these young people, specifically my son, turn into a parent.
The fear and anticipation that happen when your life is taken over for a whole year by the process of finding out you’re pregnant is like nothing else I can think of. Maybe pursuing a college degree is similar, or starting your own business, but the visceral and emotional transformations that happen in pregnancy and childbirth are ferocious, tornadic, utterly out of your control, leaving a huge empty path in their wake. What you knew before is gone. Your life will never again be what it was.
And unlike going to college or starting a business, many pregnancies — including this one — start off as complete surprises, which adds another layer to this challenge.
Raising kids is an exercise in hope. Not just the hope that these tiny people will grow into something amazing, but hope that the things you say have some lasting meaning. You talk to these little faces about life, about problems that come up, and you give them information that you hope desperately they will remember, little bits of instruction that may someday become useful.
“Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot,” you say, starting with small lessons about safety and awareness.
“Save money from every paycheck,” you say, hoping that they will sock away a tiny nest egg that will one day grow into a full-blown safety net.
“Dating is practice for finding a mate,” you say, as they cry on your shoulder after having their hearts broken by the latest girlfriend. “Date a lot of people so you can learn your preferences and your limitations.”
“Learn patience,” you say when they get turned down for the job they wanted, because life doesn’t follow any kind of predictable path. Be patient and observe, and do not make decisions in haste.
Then there are the lessons you teach without words, the example you set by your behavior, either on purpose or completely unknowingly. How you clean and maintain your home, how you fight with your spouse, how you make up, how you discipline. So many lessons about how to be an adult filter through you when you’re a parent, and you spend a lot of energy hoping that those lessons will stick, that they will carry something — anything positive, really — forward from those brief moments you have together. A lot of content is packed into a very short time.
And when those kids step into the period where adult-level decisions need to be made, you hold your breath. There is no way to know whether the things you taught them will stick until they have to make a choice. And all you can do — despite ill-advised attempts by intrusive parents — is support them and hold your breath and hope that the lessons you taught them over their lives have provided them with the tools they need to take the next step.
All three of my kids have been making adult-level decisions for a while now. Where to go to school, how to deal with a job you hate, how to cook for yourself without burning down the house, how to maintain long-term relationships. They’ve all done things about which I’m proud, and things about which I shake my head in confusion. They have each made choices I have questioned and done things I do not understand or agree with. They’re not perfect, but I’m proud of each of them for the work they’ve done to create a life they love.
Somehow, seeing my son become a parent hits harder. That juncture is so vivid, so charged with emotion, it flings me back to my own slog through becoming a parent. Over the last nine months, I’ve remembered the trap-door feeling of uncertainty of my first pregnancy, the terror at my life taking a hard left turn off the path I thought I was on, the relentlessness of time moving toward this whole-life shift for which I was sure I was not ready.
I don’t think my son has felt that same terror. He’s traveled through this period with comfort and security in his relationship, a comfort I did not have when I was pregnant. He’s talked with Tim and me about his moments of fear and uncertainty, and we’ve supported him in ways my parents never once even attempted.
I want to believe that his experience is different from mine because he had different parents than I had. I hope that’s true. Hell, my entire parenting philosophy was to provide for my kids the kind of love and support and trust my parents did not give me. I know now that they couldn’t, and I know why they couldn’t.
But I could do that for my kids, and I threw myself into it with the intention that when they arrived at big decision moments, they would have the kind of mental and emotional endurance and elasticity to flex and expand instead of snapping under strain.
Anais Nin wrote, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” I find that true in parenting too. Raising children has given me the chance to experience life all over again and see it through their eyes. Now that they’re launched into their own lives, I don’t have a front-row seat to their every struggle and small victory. This pregnancy and the connection we’ve fostered with our adult children provided a live feed into my son’s world, where I got to watch him and his wife change from a sweet young couple into two strong adults who know how to manage hard situations with grace and perseverance.
More than anything right now, more overwhelming than the need I have to scoop up that tiny little baby and sing to her, more than the slight discomfort at the oversized suit I’m now wearing that declares my new role as grandmother — more than all of that is my wonder at the birth of these new parents, freshies in the world of seeing their world through new eyes, learning how to walk on new legs strengthened by the experiences they’ve just been through.
Three births happened the day my granddaughter came to this world; that baby and her parents. And now we get to watch all three of them become something wholly new and unknown, something all their own that never existed before.
That is the most stunning and welcome surprise.
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