For non-biological parents like myself, it’s sometimes hard to identify the first moment when you truly become a parent. There probably won’t be balloons or greeting cards or cigars. You might not even notice it yourself until days or weeks or even years afterwards. For me, perhaps it was the first time I straightened my stepdaughter’s bathroom towel.
In my mid-thirties I fell in love with the recently divorced father of a then five-year-old daughter. It was not what I grew up thinking of as the “normal” way to enter into marriage and parenthood, but perhaps any other way would have been too terrifying for me. I’ve never been much for following the “normal” paths carved out by society, so maybe backing into parenthood was the only way for me.
“What do you want your role to be?” my future life partner asked me as we were laying the groundwork for what we referred to as the “merger” — moving in together and then getting married. “Oh, I want to be her parent, you know,” I casually replied. “And everything that means.”
I imagine this as the moment when we were poised at the top of the first hill on a roller coaster, only we have no idea that we are, in fact, about to plunge down the other side. I had some intuitive sense that this was not going to be easy. What I didn’t know was that this would be the hardest thing I had ever done.
My friends who are biological moms tell me that even when their child is doing the most annoying thing possible — fill in the blank here for yourself — they can still picture them when they were at their cutest and most helpless. They have that powerful bank of memories in their head to draw on — their child as a newborn with the big eyes and large head that are supposed to instinctively draw on all our deepest needs to nurture and protect. What do you have when you’re not a biological parent and you’re entering the picture at a considerably later phase in the game? How do you come to love a child in the way that parents love their children when you missed much of that complete helplessness and dependency — when you’re late to the party, so to speak?
Being plunged into both parenting and partner-hood in one fell swoop, there was a lot of general irritation at all the control over my space which I had suddenly lost.
Being plunged into both parenting and partner-hood in one fell swoop, there was a lot of general irritation at all the control over my space which I had suddenly lost. And much consternation at all the things a small child is incapable of doing for herself. I don’t remember the first time I walked into the bathroom and saw her towel, which was bunched over the towel rack in a contorted heap that would never successfully dry. “Should I call her back in and give a much resented lesson in how to properly hang a towel over the rack?” I thought to myself. “Or should I just straighten out the towel myself?” I opted for the latter, and who can say now why? Exhaustion? Resignation? Compassion? Love?
In the early days of learning to parent, I remember asking my own mother, “When do they say thank you?” I knew the answer, having just thanked her for the first time ever for not killing me before I reached puberty. “You don’t do it because you want to be thanked,” she had said, which seemed in the moment like a deeply unsatisfactory answer. Now, it just seems like the truth of the matter.
Does my stepdaughter ever even notice that the towel gets magically straightened? I have no idea, but the chances of her thanking me for it are slim, and my mother was right. It’s not the point. Is it important that the towel be straightened? Well, it certainly increases the chances that she actually gets a dry towel next time, but who knows if she even notices whether or not her towel is dry? It makes me feel better about the state of the bathroom and in the grand scheme of parenting, that is not something to be taken lightly.
Here’s what’s really important about the straightening of the towel. It’s a small thing that I do for my stepdaughter without being asked and without being acknowledged, and so it is a small act of love. And this, for me, is how you become a parent. Parenting is a constant flow of acts, some of them large and some of them small, but which all add up to the care of another human being.
You become a parent by getting up at 6:30 in the morning to get your child to school, by making sure she wears her hat when it’s cold, by carrying mints in your purse for when she gets carsick, by listening to a rather long recitation of the plot of an episode of iCarly, and often by simply being there in a thousand other, fairly mundane, ways. Loving a child is an everyday thing, regardless of whether they happen to be cute and cuddly while you are doing it and regardless of whether they are biologically related to you or not.
Caring for a child in all these ways is loving a child, and this, for me, is how you become a parent. You become a parent by straightening the bathroom towel, and remembering that sometimes actually makes it a pleasurable thing to do.