Sep 1, 2021 • 5M

The unbearable beauty of parenting

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It was the smallest of things.

We were driving. I heard Maya say to Stella in the backseat: “Do you want me to read all of Raina’s favorite foods to you?”

She’d been reading one of Raina Telgemeier’s wildly popular graphic novels, a h/t from her cousin, Atticus, who is the ripe old age of eight instead of her seven, so very, very cool.

“Yeah,” said Stella, 5-years-old, munching away on her seaweed.

Maya read the list, then said, “Want me to keep reading?”

“Yeah Maya, keep reading.”

I looked over at John, my husband, father of these infuriating, beautiful little miracles, and we exchanged a knowing glance.

We have so many shorthand ways of describing the experience of parenting—long days, short years, all joy, no fun, you’ve heard them all. And all of them resonate with me to some extent. But sitting there, listening to that small exchange between my daughters, and feeling my heart explode a little, I realized something different about parenting’s profound effect on a person.

Loving children puts you in what Celtics call “a thin place.” The veil between the mundane and the sacred grows thin. A moment before we were driving from here to there, talking about which one of us was going to exercise on which mornings in the week ahead, and suddenly we were transported to a spiritual plane where these two humans—so different, so fresh, made up of parts of us, and also wholly their own—were accompanying one another.

Maya used to have whole conversations with her dad in which they just jabbered “dabby dabby dabby,” back and forth in the exquisitely accurate rhythm of a real conversation…and here she is actually reading words. Stella once sat in her carseat, chubby as all get out, and offered little to Maya in the way of actual friendship…now she is her compadre, come hell or high-water (and there have been a lot of both in the last year, believe you me).

Part of the feeling in my chest is just this existential tug—life moves like this, babies are born out of thin air and become people with personalities as unique as fingerprints, it’s happening all the time underneath the squabbles and the tater tots and the games of Uno. In these moments, when the gift of all this growing and changing is suddenly plain to me, I repeat to myself, like a little chant: This is my life. This is my life. This is my life.

Part of the feeling in my chest is something else though—unbearable beauty, I’ll call it. I feel like I’m on drugs all of the sudden, intensely aware of how much we take for granted every single day. I’m sure I experienced this before kids, and still do separate from them, but most frequently I feel this acute sense of how unbearably beautiful life is in their presence.

And I really mean unbearable. Have you seen the gray green forest that is my daughter’s eyes? What the hell? Have you seen the breath go in and out of my other daughter’s lungs? Her little heart beating beating beating? The way she laughs when our neighbor Dave scoops her upside down? How is it possible? I am having a hard time even writing this paragraph because when I get in touch with it, the real depth of the gift I’ve been given, I feel overcome.

Parenting is a portal in this way. Ironically, it plunges me deeper into Sisyphean cleaning and administration and monotony and worry like nothing else, but it also delivers me—in these moments—into transcendence.

There is a humbling solidarity in the mundane parts of parenting; I know all parents struggle with maddening aspects of raising a human without a fully developed frontal lobe. But there is also a sacred solidarity in the transcendence; I know all parents have dwelled, even if just for a moment or two, in this thin place. They have looked at their children’s various appendages, or heard them say something, watched them sleep, and known that unbearable beauty.

More and more, I’m learning that when I stumble into one of these thin places with my children, my job is not to cling to it, but to fully take it in, let it overcome me. Surrender to the unbearable beauty. That’s what my life, in part, is for. Not to amass these moments, to objectify them, to try to orchestrate them (a fool’s errand), but to learn to fully experience them when they come, to let them work their way through my dumb flesh, to let them remind me why the precarity and pain of being alive at this particular time is 100% worth it for one moment of my children’s becoming.

I will one day be dying, or dead (depending on how it all goes down), and I have a very strong instinct that my ability to be overcome by these moments could be my greatest achievement. My ability to fully absorb the unbearable beauty of my children, and hold the truth that every person who loves a child feels this same quality of sacred overwhelm, could be my greatest wisdom. Dabby dabby dabby. This is my life. This is my life. This is my life.