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By Karen Maezen Miller
Parenthood is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and there is no one harder on you than yourself. To be fair, we parents are nudged along in fear and self-doubt by experts who don’t mind telling us that the way we feed, hold, handle, speak to, and sleep with our kids is dangerous, particularly to their future test scores. No wonder we wake with a groan each morning as if we’d spent all night being kicked in the ribs by a little monster.
It’s not just the experts who dole out the body blows. We do it to each other. Venture into a park or playgroup and you’re bombarded by advocates for dueling parenting styles. We hurt ourselves, too, every time we fix on one way as the right way. One blind curve and the right way turns into the wrong way in a hurry. Perhaps we feel so inadequate because parenthood shows us the limits of what anyone can know, particularly about the future.
As parents, we think our job is to create an ideal outcome — a happier child, a smarter child, a more successful child. It’s a silly notion, isn’t it? That we are supposed to shape something presidential out of what looks like seven pounds of putty in our palm. The pressure alone makes us feel as though we’re doomed to fail. But this focus on the future outcome blinds us to the marvel that already appears before us. It’s not putty. Babies aren’t blobs. Do we ever notice, and trust, the wonder of life happening continually and miraculously by itself?
One day — it seems like only yesterday — my baby rolled over. Sat up. Crawled. Walked. Spoke. Ate with a spoon. A fork. Rode a trike. A two-wheeler. Read. Wrote. Made up a song. Climbed a tree. Boarded a bus. Turned a cartwheel. None of it was hard for me, to tell you the truth. What makes my life as a parent so hard is my persistent negative judgments about myself and my child, compared to my expectations.
We expect it to be the way we want it to be; and the way we want it to be is the way we call right. There is no right way to parent; there is only a right-now way.
Like it or not, this is the offering that children give us, over and over: right now. Children always show us the present moment unfolding. Our full attention is the only thing of value we can give them in return. Good thing too, because it is the only thing that makes a lasting difference.
We spend a good bit of our lives as parents thinking it will get easier some other day: when the baby is out of diapers, then out from underfoot, then out of our hair, and then finally out of the house. It is always going to be easier some other day. But we never have to wait that long. It gets easier as soon as you get out of your judging mind — the mind that picks and chooses one way as best and regards all other ways as less.
And what a happy day that is! When we liberate ourselves from the idea of parenting success, we liberate our children from failure, all without accomplishing a single thing. Freedom is instantaneous the moment we accept the way things are right now.
When we focus on what is in front of us, what is truly facing us in a situation, we know what to do and not do. I’m never confused when I see my daughter reach up to touch the open flame on the stovetop, only when I try to deduce some future impact on her performance. Since in the thinking about what to do we become terribly confused, I tell parents to stop thinking about all the worrisome what-ifs and just stay present to what is. Then, if we overreact, we can always say we’re sorry. There is no right way to parent, but saying we’re sorry is something we can all get good at.
“Mommy, I feel sorry for God,” my daughter said not long ago, “because he has to create a million billion fingerprints!” And here I am complaining about making another bowl of macaroni and cheese. As far as I’m concerned, she can call the source of creation whatever she likes; I’m just glad she’s taken the responsibility for fabricating the human race out of my hands. I can make a mess out of the simplest things.
Karen Maezen Miller is the author of Hand Wash Cold and Momma Zen. She is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, California.
Excerpted from the book Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life© 2010 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.