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.