Yesterday afternoon I saw a parent I recognised, not because I knew her but because I have been her. Countless times. This mother was calm and serene, guiding her school-aged daughter – who was the opposite of calm and serene – through a few afternoon jobs.
On paper this exercise might not appear to demand patience or resilience or strength. And yet off paper? It demanded all of that. In vast quantities.
How hard can it be to simply grab some milk, a loaf of bread and stop into the chemist after school? The answer very much depends on the child in tow, on the day, indeed hour, in question.
For the woman I was inadvertently following, on account of having the exact same list of jobs in the exact same centre at the exact same time, the child in question was beside herself. She was angry, emotional and making all sorts of cross, bordering on hysterical, demands of her mum.
What she wanted changed often: first it was a hot cross bun then it was new stickers, some textas, and then it was sushi and then it was going to the park. (Hint: it was control this young girl had her little heart set on).
In response her mum was kind but firm and didn’t give in: she maintained a sense of calm as she repeated the same sentiments as necessary.
“Use an inside voice.” “When you stop shouting we can talk.” “I will talk to you when you use your inside voice.” “I can see you’re mad but we don’t shout.” “No, I’ve told you that we’re not buying hot cross buns/ toys/sushi/going to the park.”
If you’ve never known, or had, a child that might occasionally (or even regularly) indulge in this type of public spectacle, you might be horrified by this account. You might even find it inexplicable. I certainly did when I first met a child like this…a child I encounter often on account of her being my very own flesh and blood.
Knowing this territory as intimately as I do is why I wanted to bow down to this woman and shower her with flowers/cake/wine/linen sheets and anything else her heart desired, not out of pity but out of sheer unadulterated admiration. Because her performance was superb parenting personified. It was a masterclass in resilience, dignity and inner strength.
In my experience there is nothing as exquisitely testing and humiliating as being in public when one of your children, a little person who you love and discipline and encourage and cuddle and battle and soothe, loses it.
And while a public tantrum or two inevitably happen to most parents of kids under 4, beyond that it isn’t par for course for all children. Which only adds to the humiliation when the child losing it is evidently (well) beyond the ‘terrible two’ & ‘threenager’ bracket.
Parenting one child is not the same as parenting another – even when they share genetics, parents and the same roof. The individuality of kids is part of the joy of family life, and it is also why, in my experience, children come with their own difficulty rankings. And while these rankings do move about on a daily, monthly, yearly basis, there is some uniformity in where a particular child lands most regularly.
It is the reason some parents relate when I describe one of our children as more of a ‘black diamond run’ in family life. Like on a ski field she presents challenging, precipitous and undulating terrain that is not without its thrills but entails plenty of spills too. The topography is markedly different from the smooth, gentle runs that Blue and Green trails offer. It’s not to say that blue and green trails don’t also present challenges – they do – but on the whole there is a level of predictability that simply isn’t there with black diamond runs.
And the truth of it? There is nothing as personally challenging as mustering the energy and resilience to be calm and considered in the face of a blizzard on a sheer cliff face on a black diamond trail. Weathering those storms and emerging with everyone physically and emotionally intact is close to my crowning life achievement: it takes more inner strength than I ever imagined I could offer.
But it’s not a skill I can list anywhere. It’s not an accomplishment that is recognised. It is something that isn’t really seen: even when it takes public in the public eye. Which I suppose is why I wanted to recognise the incredible mum I saw in the supermarket this week. I refrained from reaching out to her and settled for (hopefully) conveying solidarity and support via my gaze when our eyes briefly met at the chemist.
I witnessed what I am certain will feature as either her week’s biggest challenge or at least a top contender. She will have arrived home afterwards, likely exhausted, where the circus may well have continued, and yet she will have persisted. Surely, she would have snapped, yes, but she will return to calm, firm and kind soon enough.
She will, at some point, have either collapsed in her bed or on the couch and wondered how on earth she managed. She will wake up and do it all again in the morning. Without fanfare or acknowledgement because the reality is parenting remains an invisible, undervalued endeavour.
We don’t often view parenting as superhuman and in some cases it really isn’t. But in other cases? It legitimately requires the kind of discipline and focus and motivation demanded of athletes who undertake ultra marathons or triathlons. In some cases parenting is the ultra ultra-marathon but there are no cheering crowds or medals at the end.
For the mum at the supermarket this week, there was a crowd of one cheering you along silently. I see you and I salute you, sister.