The Exceptional Parent
Almost eleven years ago to the day, my newborn baby lay in a non-toxic plastic and tilted hospital cradle under a bright bulb with thin, nearly translucent flailing arms. She was quiet at first, but after they sucked the gunk from her, she began to wail. I had been desperate to hold her and now I could place her on my chest, and I pushed my breast in her face, and insisted that this mamalia relationship was going to work. I shared a lot about our birth story and the subsequent journey of raising a newborn in my book, Woman Of Color; but what I will say here is, when I look at the arc of where we were and where we are, I realize that those were the first moments of what I offered, what she may not have even been aware she desired, but what she needed. I didn’t anticipate a struggle to give it to her, the work of getting there, the joy of finally finding our way. Those themes replay themselves.
This is the shit that no one tells you about. Whether they are one day old or eleven-years-old, the cycle of intuiting, offering, sometimes coming up short, finding new paths, and diverging from the ones you were sure were going to work–this is the entire work of parenthood. My milk eventually came down and we nursed, and River hardly cried, unless a loud noise startled her. We alternated between breastmilk and formula.. I spent so many hours on the floor with her, learning, pushing my own agendas, and learning new ones, sometimes hers. I figured out how to be on her time, while needing my time; how to support while not enabling; be mad while not inserting that anger into her. I learned a lot about guardrails in linguistics, a big piece of my parenting pride.
The “book” on exceptional parenting suggests that natural mistakes won’t happen. But the consequence of this is continuing as a society of individualistic knowingness, a false but deeply ingrained notion in American culture. Individualistic knowingness insists that parents will be so clear-eyed about their own children, and about themselves as parents, that they avoid the cycles of trial and error, finding their own way. It’s a philosophy that sets expectations of competition and winning, of having it all and appearing effortless–and this is exactly why I felt that I had to start writing about parenthood over a decade ago.
Over the last few weeks, unexpectedly riding this pandemic wave up and down again, I’ve had to remind myself to work against the premise of exceptional parenting. Even though I'm intent on rejecting false expectations. I have a penchant for this, built up on a fraught belief that, if I work hard enough, I will get through everything, I will clear my plate.
Parenting a tween and talking about these years from experienced friends has been a clear example of what does and doesn’t work. Preteens are skilled at performing at responsibility, as an answer to confusion and the struggle through puberty. Most parents (like myself) believe that this season is the one in which they become a little less bogged down with the identities of their children. But I’ve realized that the truth is completely opposite. It is what we are fed, to fit into the ideology of parenting exceptionalism. Kid grows up -> Kid explores -> Mom has her own life back, ever slightly. In this season, my kid needs me more than ever. She needs me to lean in while letting her be untethered. She needs me to always be listening, while not projecting, assuming, while simultaneously, catching the gaps of language between the breaths. This is hard, because to be incredibly that mom, I need to be able.
In a synopsis of bell hooks’s parenting philosophy, Child Liberation Theologian R.L Stollar clarifies this,
…hooks's emphasis on children’s rights reminds us child liberation theology must be focused on praxis, on concrete, practical solutions to real-life problems. Unlike other child-centered theological movements like the child theology movement, child liberation theology unequivocally affirms the civil and political rights of children. Affirmation of these rights is essential to solving the real-life problems children face everyday. Child liberation theology also must, as hooks does, unequivocally condemn domination as a cornerstone of parenting. Domination comes from patriarchy and thus liberative parenting rejects it. “Ending patriarchal domination, by men or women,” hooks says, “is the only way to make the family a place where children can be safe, where they can be free, where they can know love.”
In addition to affirming children’s rights as essential to the process of liberating children, we must also fight for a transformation of our nation’s fiscal priorities. This is, like the affirmation of children’s rights, one of the most concrete and practical ways we can revolutionize the way we value and protect children. This is something hooks calls for as well: for people to “rally together to demand that tax money spent on the arms race and other militaristic goals be spent on improving the quality of parenting and child care in this society.”
A dear friend wrote to me recently, about parenting River. He used Stollar’s word collaboration, in reference to parenting. And it made all the more sense. Especially after reading Stollar’s work myself. It is in fact what bell hooks so fervently wrote about, after all. The desire to adultify our children while they’re still young is unjust. It’s an unjust mistake I’ve made, an unjust mistake that was done to me, that I am trying to undo. And at once, it is the result of the idea that even through pandemic resurgence and children who may very well have apertures in their own growth due to the unrelenting and strange time of being in school less, and with care givers more, that the availability to parent exceptionally and to be a kid, exceptionally, is accessible.
Eleven years ago, I went to the WIC office and happily used state-funded resources to feed my baby and myself. Despite the dangerous and racist trope of The Welfare Queen, this liberated me. The freedom to ask for help, the freedom to take it, and move past it. This is something that exceptional parenting doesn’t allow for, but that real parenthood requires. “Rally together to demand that tax money spent on the arms race and other militaristic goals be spent on improving the quality of parenting and child care in this society,” hooks wrote, before she passed away. Strangely, on the day of my daughter’s 11th birthday, a child tax credit that has helped roughly 36 million families in 2021, hangs in the balance.
Collaboration, with our children; collaboration, with other mothers, brothers, tias, tios, sisters, in liberation; collaboration, with our nation and our government: All these collaborative efforts are what make a life for parents, and are what build a beautiful, or at least, sustainable, future for our kids. Let’s cast off that damaging notion that to be good parents, we must be singularly exceptional; and instead, let’s try to band together, create space for ourselves and our children simultaneously, accepting and loving the cyclical nature of learning and growing.