There’s this picture of me and my parents right after I was born. From what I’ve been told, it was the day we three came home from the hospital. We’re on the brown, scratchy couch: me, a red-faced burrito in a thick pale pink crotched blanket; my mom, happy and bright-faced in a blue sweater; and my dad, in light blue scrubs, blood-shot eyes and a weary closed-mouth smile.
I remember looking at this photo for what felt like the first time a few years ago. As I took in my young and handsome parents, a thought crossed my mind as I hovered over my dad’s tired face: they’re just people who had a baby. Just people. Just two, regular people with their own stories and their own lives who happened to have a baby. This baby wasn’t the beginning of their story, just one part of two very distinct lives.
Something about looking at their faces that day made me deeply aware of their very own personhood. Like, this is just a photo and there is so much more going on around and before and in this moment that I will never know or understand. They, my parents, are people unto themselves and, very likely, I will never know those people in the photo. They will always be my dad and mom, not Dave and Cindi. They are these set figures in my mind and no matter how generous I think I am, any deviation they make from those figures isn’t very well received.
I, like most people, had enormous expectations of the people who raised me. I remember at different points in childhood and teen years thinking that they should know better, they should do better. I would wonder why they didn’t have certain things figured out, cleaned up or worked through. After all, I would think, they are the parents.
When Shepherd was a brand new baby, he screamed all the time. At the time the term colic felt hopeless and like defeat, but he was absolutely colicky. Stephen and I had a lot of tense conversations around 3 every morning (read: fights) and most of these dialogue opportunities were because neither one of us knew what in the actual hell this kid needed. I do not miss those first few months of being a family of three.
Under the frustration of not knowing how to soothe my own baby was something far more insidious- shame. I felt a deep, abiding shame that I, his mother, could not help him. Not only could I not nurse him, I also could just barely get him to stop crying. I have a slew of great reactions to shame, one of which includes being a massive jerk to Stephen, hence much of the 3am parenting summits.
There was one cold day in May when Shep and I were home while Stephen was at work. We had this tiny little swing on the floor of our basement apartment, right at the end of the sofa. I would lay on the sofa and dangle my arm down so I could hold Shepherd’s nuk in his mouth while he and the jungle animals swayed back and forth. I had fallen asleep with him and woke with a start in a small puddle of drool on the microsuede and with a massive kink in my neck. I lifted my asleep-arm onto the couch and rolled over.
I laid there, on the end of the couch, staring at the building’s exposed pipes in our yellowing off-white ceiling for what seemed like an hour, but since Shep only napped in 20-minute increments, I know it wasn’t that long. In my head I was bemoaning my parenting, how it’s so much harder than I ever anticipated, and I was wondering when I was going to be more happy about being a mom than sad/frustrated/overwhelmed.
And that’s when I heard, clear as day, “You’re just Katie.”
I immediately felt this compression snap off my chest and I took a deep breath in.
I’m just a woman who happened to have a baby. Just because I am now his mom, a Mother, doesn’t mean I know how to solve every baby-related problem, even if the baby with the problem happens to belong to me. Being a mom did not mean I should be able to make my baby happy. I didn’t have super powers or new abilities the second his massive head popped out. I was still just Katie- now I was just Katie with a baby.
In my head, I had applied a list of shoulds that went along with my new role. Since I am this now, I should be able to do this. Simple math.
Those shoulds, that list, was just fuel for my shame at 3am when I was fresh out of control.
It was then that I realized this was going to be the rest of my parenting, and living, journey- letting myself off the hook for not having all (or any) of the answers.
I don’t know one person who has a straightforward relationship with their parents. Not only are true relationships hard, but there are few things more complicated than the parent-child relationship. Add to that any amount of friction, and, well, hello every single one of us.
The thing that has brought me the most freedom and healing in my own child-role has been letting my parents off the hook. When I stopped expecting them to be anything or anyone but Dave, Cindi and LeeAnn, I was a lot happier. Their reactions or lack thereof? Well, of course, because that’s what Dave does. What they said? Duh, LeeAnn always says stuff like that.
When I am able to see them as people apart from me, I attach far less emotional value and meaning to everything they say and do. It goes back to how it really is: not about me. Just as my parent’s story didn’t start with me, it also doesn’t center around me and I don’t need to read emotion into everything to make it all about me.
When we stood up in front of our family and church and promised to do our reasonable best at raising Valor and Haven, one of the vows or promises we made to them (specifically Valor) was that we would try hard to let them tell us who they are. I am terrified of putting an identity on my kids that isn’t really theirs, and it hit me that the reverse is true as well.
I would hate for my kids to feel continually disappointed, or worse, hurt by me because they’re expecting me to be something or someone I am not.
Nothing radical changed that chilly day in May. I was (am) still overwhelmed and tired all the time and wondered how I ended up with a broken baby. But I did notice some more space open up inside my mind and heart. Not toward Shep, though he would benefit from this space, too, but this space was for myself.
Knowing that I was just Katie and that I was free from some unspoken set of requirements took the shame of failure of my chest. There was nothing to fail. Without a rubric or outline, there is no standard, no comparison.
I was a little freer to just be Katie.
I practice letting myself off the hook daily, sometimes hourly with three small kids and one husband and a whole wide life to build. When I look back on things, even yesterday, I say in my mind, We did the best we could. Today we’re doing the best we can, too.
Practically, it looks like being really honest and saying we’re sorry a lot. And it looks like working hard to let our kids know us. Viola Davis said, in Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown, that she would never be a mystery to her daughter. That’s my goal- that they would know me, and I would know them. And through our actions, they would see two very imperfect people who just happened to have a baby working really hard at letting themselves and each other off the hook.