There is no secret sauce, no hidden ingredient, no oral history handed down on how to do what we’ve been doing the last quarter-century. Parenting: We are pretty much making this up as we go. And this week, our starter baby gave us a brand new title of “in-laws” as he married the darling girl down the street.
Along the way, we had a lot of advice and some top-notch role models, but mostly we were navigating with no map (or a map held upside down in the dark so as not to wake the baby). No one really checked on us except once for sure, and maybe twice. Someone came out of the hospital as we left with our newborn and wiggled the infant car seat around to be sure we’d installed it correctly. Then a few years later when that same child was about 3, the daycare center asked me to clarify why he told them he stayed in a cabinet all weekend. Cabin. Cabin. He stayed in a cabin. We went to a state park, it rained all weekend, and we spent the whole time in the cabin. But really, thank you for checking.
Mostly, we learned as we went. We paved the path as we walked it. I had dear friends in the same new mom boat, and we fielded each others’ parenting questions in the days before Google and WebMD — and maybe that was a good thing. We slept our 1991 new babies on their tummies, then the dictate reversed and we slept our 1993 new babies on their backs. We had baby walkers with wheels, and then those were banned before next baby came along. What? Okay. No time to be confused, or to maybe think you’re kind of a guinea pig in a parenting study, just over here learning and re-learning.
He didn’t say much and then spoke in full sentences. He walked late, he rode a bike late, and was hesitant to swim. No matter! He talks and walks and swims and rides bikes just fine. Can I have back the sleep lost over the “late”? Nope. Lose sleep over teen driving and getting home from parties. That’s a “late” that’ll keep you up at night.
He wanted to walk to kindergarten two miles away like his friends (who lived much closer). So we did, with his toddler brother in the stroller. It was not a great idea, and I lifted him onto my back those last few blocks, telling him to hold on tight like a baby monkey at the zoo while I stepped it up Michigan-time (marching band reference) to avoid the tardy bell. I spent a good deal of time after that adventure arguing that “monkey-tight” was not a viable mode of transportation. Lesson learned.
After the third baby, we moved to a bigger house with three bedrooms: small, medium, and large. As parents, we took the large bedroom. We put the boys in the medium room and their baby sister in the small room. It made sense to us. The boys, however, drew up a list of why they should have the large bedroom. Our oldest, age 8, called a meeting and presented it to us: They had friends over and played in their room, and all we ever did was sleep in our room. They would not have Lego villages, Matchbox tracks, and Playmobil encampments stretching from living room to dining room if they had a larger room to set those up in — solid arguments. They got the bigger room.
Much later, that same son at age 11 made a list of all the adults shorter than he was who sat in the front seat of their cars, all because he wanted to ride shotgun and the law dictated he had to be 12 to do so. Solid argument. Lessons learned.
Guided by just enough grace, some tough questions were fielded, often with tears mixed into the honesty. When he was in third grade and his classmate died suddenly at school, he demanded how God could let this happen. I told him the truth: I don’t know, but when I have coffee with God, this is the first thing I’m asking. Many other issues joined the list of what to ask when I have coffee with God, but none as heartbreaking as that. A year later, when we told the kids I had cancer and he asked if I was going to die, I answered tearfully and as truthfully as I knew how: Yes, but not of this. Hard lessons.
Other lessons tumbled alongside life happening and time flying: A mountain of ball-bearings won’t support a minivan, so don’t drive up that. You can wear your baseball uniform to a ceremony to accept your archdiocese math medal. Lacrosse is a contact sport. You’ll need that Spanish you learned. Playing guitar for others is a gift. Laughter with grandparents is a treasure. Time at the beach or the ballpark is never wasted. You can be a picky eater, and then one day you just are not that anymore. Your brother is your wingman, and you are his. Countersteer into the icy spin. Double back and run arms-linked with your mom across the finish line of the National Race for the Cure. Share the struggles, share the joy, share the ice cream and the music and the memories. And hang that grad-school diploma high with a damn spotlight shining on it.
And then when you find the right girl was down the street the whole time, and you spend your evenings walking together around the neighborhood, talking past curfew in her treehouse, then making a list of top-five movies for each other to watch in order to “get” each other, go to college and take classes together, travel on service trips together, design and build bridges together, vacation together, you really will “just know.”
As your brother said upon your engagement: Zero people are surprised, and 100% of the people who know you two are delighted. Not bad for not knowing what we were doing — we set the navigational beacons along a course we could barely see, and you did the rest. Godspeed to you and your sweetheart bride.
Sometimes, you hold monkey-tight, and sometimes, you gently let go.
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