Parenting cliches as loss of identity

Guest post by Victoria Brooke Rodrigues

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to say things. Part of this tendency is forced (English major) but a larger part is my inherent desire to say things in the very best way (the reason I’m an English major). If I look dazed after I have spoken a few words, it’s because I am repeating them in my head, wishing I could backspace and give you the revised draft. I want maximum meaning every time; I want my words to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Enter parenthood: the cliché-parasite. You may know this bug. It tunnels into your brain, eats select communication centers, and leaves you saying idioms that could all be preceded by: “You know what they say…

“He’s growing like a weed!”

“Mommy brain never goes away!”

“Enjoy them while you can, they grow up so fast!”

“A baby changes everything!”

Parenting clichés are hard to avoid for the same reason I want to avoid them: they are easy, true to the point of pat, and they are one-size-fits-all.

Parenthood lends itself heavily to cliché because we each experience similar events, things that have occurred again and again to parents for generations, which somehow still feel unique and exciting to us. I think this phenomenon is related to the wildly different feelings we have for kids versus our kids. Conversations between parents often sound like this to an onlooker: Yes, your son peed on you while you were changing his diaper, but listen to the way mine peed on me, which may sound similar but I think is totally different! Perhaps it all links back to nature’s way of binding us to our children: we know a toddler will occasionally dump a bowl of spaghetti on their head, but when ours does it, get the camera!

When I overhear another parent spurt a cliché, it sounds cliché. But when I watch my three year old sounding out words and then look down at my two month old staring at his hand like a monstrous burrito, “a flash in the pan” feels so relevant and appropriate, like it belongs to us.

So why do I cringe when I hear myself say these phrases? To me, it is because this is an instance where parenthood infringes on an important aspect of my childless identity. I manage the loss of free time, regular showers, and sole proprietorship of my breasts with a degree of pleasantry. But when I hear myself respond with a phrase I’ve heard dozens of times, I miss an opportunity to be my true self, the person who loves to play with words and ideas. I also miss an opportunity to tell you something unique about my family, our experience, our values, and (dare I be so self-centered), me. And it bothers me to know that I often turn to these phrases in hurried exhaustion, a state that will lead your brain to take the shortcut to its cliché section.

For example, as a vet tech I worked with post-operative dogs, cats, reptiles, rodents, and other small animals. I have seen some interesting species wobble and stumble, which should have been great fodder for commenting on my son’s first months of walking. Yet I made tired analogies like “my one year old walks like a drunk.” It might be silly to some that I mourn the my use of a known phrase when I could have made one more personal, but to me it is as much a loss of myself as the artist-mother who suddenly can’t make it to the studio, the athlete-mother too exhausted to train, or the glamorous mother who can’t find time for her previous upkeep.

Sometimes I worry that mommy brain really will last forever, that everything has changed, and that I shouldn’t spend my time worrying about it when these years are such a flash in the pan. These are times I have to stop, edit, and rephrase. I am lending some cognitive power to my baby as he develops his own. Things have changed but I am still inside this body and mind. Infanthood is like those moments when you wake up and clearly, viscerally remember a dream because it is mind-body-and-soul consuming and you will never experience it quite so wholly again, but you also have get up and continue to be yourself and live your life.

I have made it a priority to stop myself when I feel the tingle of the cliché parasite in my brain, and even if I look stupid, pause for a second to reach for a phrase more descriptive and personal. Sometimes this works. Sometimes, (you know what they say,) it is easier said than done.

Comments on Parenting cliches as loss of identity

  1. Thank you for this – it’s like you’re inside my head, speaking my thoughts. I really appreciated your point about missing an opportunity to be your true self and how fatigue can take that away (or at least compromise it). This inspires me to be more compassionate toward me (and other mamas) as I struggle to be insightful and powerful when all I can seem to manage is predictable.

  2. I LOVE THIS POST. I was thinking about this just the other day when answering an email from a high school classmate on Facebook. I felt myself slipping into the “they grow up so fast” cliches and even caught myself making a sleep dep joke … which doesn’t even make sense, because Tavi is a pretty good sleeper. I was just sliding into giving the platitudes, and not even picking the ones that made sense!

    The cliches become this shorthand that parents speak to each other, and you’re right: every time I fall back on a cliche, I’m missing a chance to express my true experience.

  3. I agree so much and I am not even a parent quite yet. I HATE cliches, I hate saying them, being them or having them said to me. Yes, I get that they, to some degree, represent universal experiences, but this does not make them any more palatable.
    It’s nice to know that others feel the same way!

  4. I have definitely found myself doing this over the last six months and each time, it makes me cringe. I used to think of myself as witty and clever with words…enter twin girls and everything’s been flung to the wind. I also am guilty of picking cliches that don’t apply to my girls (arg!) in order to connect with someone…it usually just catapults me farther away from my creative self.

  5. I’m grinning because I soooooo understand. I often find myself rambling trying to express a sentiment sans clichè. I frequently explain to the point that I forget my intent. But sometimes I bust out the clichès on purpose. When a relative stranger -or a complete stranger- asks “how’s the baby?” I’ll rattle off “oh, he’s growing like a weed!” I can keep it generic and upbeat rather than having to explain how important his 20g a day weight gain has been and how his lung function tests were at our last trip to the CF clinic. Every once in a while, clichès let us be just another family in the masses. Which can be nice.

  6. This post reminds me of when my uncle, unmarried and childless, commented to my husband and I immediately after the birth of our daughter that we were “boldly going where millions have gone before.” It’s still my favorite way of thinking about parenting – as novel as a walk on the moon to us, but still uniting us with the experience of millions of others.

  7. Ring the bell of truth! Sometimes the cliche just tumbles out of my mouth and often I don’t even mean it. It is mental and linguistic shorthand and I hate it! But, eh, cut me and you a break. We are each probably overtired and keeping one eye on a kid while we dribble the nonsense to others. At least we can write!

  8. I am grateful to read this. I am not a mother yet, but I have been contemplating having children. What I find is that parents (in their fatigue and commonality) do automatically resort to these cliches to describe their experience having children whenever I ask them what it’s really like for them. Most often I hear the same things…”It’s so hard, but definitely worth it.” I don’t know if it’s the writer side of me or not, but I can hear my high school English teacher’s voice asking, “Now, what exactly does that mean?” Specificity goes a long way, and saying something succinctly truly bonds one person to another in their experiences.

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