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During a painful root canal, the new dentist asked the magic question: "You have children?" I grinned around the paraphernalia wedged in my mouth, including both her hands. Through awkwardness and pain, I glowed with bliss.
"Four," I blurted. That's all I could say, but the word was a powerful talisman. I was probably drooling by then, but the thought of my kids buoyed me through the ordeal. While I'll never give up nitrous oxide, memory can sometimes be a stronger balm.
I remember each birth, that first foggy sight of a dark head emerging. After a long labor, the final moments flew, and suddenly in my arms, squirming and damp, was the newest family member. Some parents have the presence of mind to name the child and say hello. I could only cry. That mingling of emotions-pain and ecstasy, relief and fear, joy and dread-pretty much characterizes the next thirty years or so.
At one time we carefully prepared a crib, receiving blankets, tiny sleepers, and a rocking chair. In the years that follow, we still spend time waiting, preparing. Just as we anticipated a daughter or son's birth, so we sit in endless car lines, waiting for one familiar figure to emerge from school or soccer practice. In later years, we cook a favorite dish, make a welcome banner, and put clean sheets on the bed of one returning from college or graduate school, or from a career in another city or travel abroad.
In between the waiting and preparing times come a few spaces for pure enjoyment. One occurred recently at a folksy restaurant, warm with wood and the aroma of scones baking. I have sat around many dining tables with friends my age, savoring their wit, their enthusiasms, their unconscious charm, their individual takes on aging or parenting or politicking or whatever process we're discussing. But this time was different.
The laughter still flowed around the wooden table. Hot coffee kept the conversation bubbling, and each one contributed her unique viewpoint. But the women that day were half my age. After an overnight visit to see my daughter, she'd gathered some friends to have breakfast before we all went to work.
I wish each of their parents had a hidden peephole on the scene, to relish that meal with each delightful daughter. Someone had sacrificed energy, time, and money for the education, the medical care, and the wardrobes they wore so effortlessly today. While a graduation represents a public pinnacle, this was a small and ordinary triumph. Whoever had gotten up in the middle of the night with these lovely young women when they were small and had the flu probably never imagined their beautiful unfolding.
The opportunity made me grateful for the privilege of this window on their lives, for sharing intimately, but at a distance. Where else in human experience do we come so close to a life that is not ours? It's like living immediately, with an extra life, an enhancement. Anyone who has given birth or adopted a daughter or son can call the child "mine, but not mine; intimate, but independent."
In the same paradoxical way, anything we could say about parenting is "true but not true." While some generalizations seem to fit everyone, each relationship nuances the broad strokes differently. Like the stubborn stance of a toddler insisting "mine!", each child's uniqueness challenges anything we could say definitively about everyone. Even within the same family, with the same parents, and in the same environment, the differences among individual siblings are breathtaking.
The God who loves variety had a field day when creating families. Some will thrive on conditions that depress others. One crew won't blink about a situation that causes major upheaval for another. Much as external appearances differ, inner lives-personalities, talents, viewpoints-will be distinct as well. But it only makes the adventure more exciting. Whether you are just beginning to parent or have been parenting for years, welcome aboard. It's a magnificent ride!