Sunday, April 11, 2010

Parenting without a map

Last week at the bookstore, I spent an hour moving slowly along the rows and bookshelves, my head tilted to one side, reading titles.

After an hour or so of skimming titles and sampling chapters I had three books I couldn’t leave behind so I carried them to the cash register and got in line. There was a man talking to the cashier and just ahead of me a pregnant woman stood with three books of her own. Tilting my head again, I read the titles she held.

Each of them had something to do with parenting.

Ah, I thought. She’s looking for an owner’s manual. I remembered doing the same thing.

When I was pregnant, especially with my first child, I bought everything I could find on childbirth and raising children. Some I read cover-to-cover. Others were tossed aside, their contents relating in no tangible way to the life I was living.

By the time my fourth baby came along, I felt like writing a book. “Want to be the best mother you can be? Yeah, me too.”

or, “Parenting secrets: Please share.”

I still didn’t have a clue.

The man left with his books. The woman moved up to pay for her purchases.It crossed my mind that I should put out my arm and stop her.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I should have said. “I can give you a few tips for free,”

Here’s all you need to know, I should have told her: You’re scared. You have no idea what you’re doing. You’re worried that you aren’t going to get it right. Guess what? You’re going to feel that way for the rest of your life.

You’ll look at that infant, that toddler, that third-grader, that teenager, that young adult, and feel like a stranger in a foreign land. You’ll have to learn a new language every few years. You’ll read and pray and prepare. You’ll spend sleepless nights staring at the ceiling, worrying, tossing and turning and planning the best and preparing for the worst. And no matter how much homework you do, you’ll still get it wrong at least half the time.

You see, that’s the chapter that gets left out of all of those books: Parenting is like skiing in the dark. The right path is out there, you’re just too blind to see it. You have to feel your way between potential disasters. You follow a rope, feeling in the dark, moving from one knot to the next. There’s no time to cling to the place you just left because you’re constantly moving forward. And just when you’re sure you’re at the end of your rope, you move on again.

I didn’t say anything to her, of course. She bought her books and went on her way.

She’ll figure it out. Sooner or later, we all do.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at

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