By Olivia Campbell
Parenting is less about acquired knowledge and more about becoming skilled in creatively winging it.
I had just strapped my almost-2-month-old son into his vibrating bouncy chair when the weight of my newfound responsibility of motherhood finally sunk in. It was a dreary winter afternoon in our drafty second-floor, one-and-a-half bedroom apartment in the museum district of Richmond, Virginia. The bouncy chair was one of the few places my son enjoyed being other than latched onto my nipple. At this point, I was only just beginning to acclimate to this state of constantly being needed by another human.
The bouncy chair was a simple machine: a fabric sleeve enveloping a wire frame with a battery pack that produced vibrations. The frame eased back with the weight of the baby and the more he moved, the more it bounced. The chair looked vaguely like a baby slingshot. On the arch curving over the chair hung three wild animals: two hard-plastic elephants: one green and one blue, each with large orange ears made of crinkly fabric that toy manufacturers hope babies will find as fun to gnaw as newspaper. In between the elephants hung a small yellow stuffed lion with pieces of teal ribbon for a mane. My son stared up at the colorful creatures dangling above him. It was a rare, beautiful moment of him being calm without being held. I looked down at him and said happily: “Look—it’s a lion!”
The minute those four simple words hit my own ears, I froze. But… that’s not a lion, I thought. It’s a tiny, plush, inanimate, goofy-smiling representation of a lion—a caricature almost. What if he thinks that this is actually a lion? Then it hit me:
I have to teach him everything about everything.
As a new mom to an unintended child—my logic twisted by the haze of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression—my thoughts began to get further away from me. I realized that whatever I told my son, he would assume as true, simply because I am his mother and he trusts me implicitly because he doesn’t know any better. But what if I lied to him on purpose, as an experiment: if I told him that blue is called red, just to see if it stuck. I was awash in a sense of power that felt as exciting as it was utterly terrifying.
What if I were to get it wrong? What if he grows up to be a terrible person? I was only a few weeks into my parenting gig and I’d already messed up. I’d already told him something that wasn’t true. What if he thought lions were stuffed animals?
Seven years have passed since the lion incident. I have made more parenting mistakes than I can count. He rolled off the bed once as an infant. Instead of missing my grad school class, I left him with a sitter when he had a terrible stomach bug. I yell too much. I cave too often. He plays too many video games and doesn’t eat enough vegetables. Some mistakes I probably haven’t even realized I’ve made. But to look back and only laugh this one off as “mommy’s first anxiety-spiral” is to overlook the tinder of truth that ignited my fear.
While I know I am not my son’s only source of knowledge, but as his parents, his father and I are likely the most influential: we are the gatekeepers, interpreters. As a mother, my sensitivity to this role feels especially acute. This—among so very many other reasons—makes raising my child a huge responsibility. Even now, if ruminated upon for too long, the responsibility becomes too overwhelming. Remaining perpetually occupied with the day-to-day processes of parenting helps prevent me from considering this responsibility too frequently or in too much depth. Otherwise, I might go mad questioning every little parenting decision. Anyway, despite my panic and against all stuffed animal odds, my son does not appear to be confused about what a lion is.
I’ve come to understand that parenting is less about acquired knowledge and more about becoming skilled in creatively winging it. I could have read every parenting book under the sun and still not have be prepared for what it has thrown at me—poop in the exersaucer, broken bones, questions about death, swearing at church, a backseat full of goldfish, among many other things.
My role as a parent is constantly evolving, as is my relationship with my children; many times they show me how they need to be parented. It was when I had a second child—who couldn’t be more different from my first—that I realized just how much of their behavior was actually a reflection of their personalities, not my parenting skills.
I know my 7-year-old and 2-year-old sons will continue to ask questions I won’t be able to answer. Some things we can learn together, other things they will come to understand far better than I do. Now, whenever we visit the lions at the zoo, I remember that little stuffed toy on the bouncy chair and I think of how much I’ve grown as a parent. It’s not that I have all the answers now, it’s that I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t.
Olivia Campbell is an editorial assistant at VELA Magazine and a freelance writer whose articles and essays on medicine, dance, and mothering have appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine, GOOD Magazine, and The Daily Beast. She holds an master’s in narrative nonfiction: science-medical writing from Johns Hopkins University.