Parenting journal: Metaphors

It is really hard to explain parenting to a non-parent, perhaps impossible if you’re trying to do it concisely (an elevator pitch for having children? ha!). It can be just as hard, I think, to understand our own kids once we have them, even at this early stage where Owl is right now. Society is something adults built for other adults, and after so many years of living in it, we lose our sense of childhood. That’s a requirement, perhaps, of our participation in society (and its many offenses, in which we are all complicit).

In the almost-two years that I’ve been mother to Owl, I’ve found myself turning often to metaphors in my efforts to understand what it must be like to be her, or to explain my experience in a way that would make sense to my former self. A surprising number of these metaphors have invoked the imagery of aliens and unknown planets. As a general non-fan of science fiction, the words “set in outer space” are about as appealing to me as “economic history” or “baseball trivia”, but being a parent has forced my imagination into all kinds of new territory.

Yellow mixed media doodle by Lisa Hsia

On the transition from non-parent to parent

Last September, I posted that the difference between my childless life and my current life was like living on Earth versus on Mars. I came up with that analogy in the first months postpartum, when I was trying hard to think of how to explain the changes without relying on the usual clichés (or worse, “you won’t understand until you have a child”). Before I had Owl, it seemed to me that people were very invested in selling parenthood as an upgrade from childfree life: the colors more vivid, the joy more complete, the meaning of life finally incontrovertible. I didn’t see how that could possibly be true when all the parents I’d seen were exhausted and seemed incomprehensibly wrapped up in their children. I feared the change parenthood would cause in me. I liked myself! I didn’t want a new self!

I swore I wouldn’t give in, but resisting the changes of motherhood turned out to be not a matter of will. In fact, resistance was not only futile, it was painful — not to say it wasn’t important to acknowledge the changes and attempt to temper them as much as possible. But there was no way to stop them completely. And every time I tried to explain this, even to myself, I found myself making unfair comparisons. The language that people use to describe the changes is just not, as far as I’m concerned, the right language. I hate all this talk of “changed priorities” and “living for someone else” and “seeing the world through fresh eyes” and so forth. All of this is true, but that’s like saying death is the cessation of breathing and bodily functions: those are the facts, but the facts are so irrelevant to meaning as to be irrelevant completely.

It may sound a bit morbid to bring up death when I’m talking about the transition to parenthood, but the truth is — the truth, not the facts — it is a kind of death. At least that has been my experience, and the experience of many other mothers I’ve talked to. It is also a birth, mind you; it is a transformation, a metamorphosis. (To allude to Owl’s latest favorite book: being a butterfly is amazing, but you’re never going to experience being a caterpillar ever again.) You come out on the other side and you’re a different person, but whether that is a good or bad thing really depends on the person. If you love motherhood and you weren’t attached to your previous life, maybe it really doesn’t hurt, at least beyond the mere hurts of the body. If you adored your freedom and you have a challenging child, it may be excruciating. But for many of us it’s not clear-cut. Are we glad we had our child(ren)? Absolutely; we can’t imagine life without them. Do we miss the lives we had before them? Absolutely, with tears, with rage, with grief. These feelings coexist.

This is why I came up with the Earth versus Mars analogy, because I find it impossible to talk about what’s better or worse — or even to compare at all — without in some way gliding over what’s really important. We all start out on Earth and when you become a parent, you move to Mars. Mars is not better than Earth, or vice versa, but it is very different to understand (or remember) one when you are living on the other. The parameters of existence are so different: gravity, atmospheric pressure, the distance from the sun, the number of moons, the presence of water, the total absence of native vegetation, how you mark the passage of time. You can’t expect to talk about Martian life by using Earth language. The experiences are not equivalent.

Two toddlers in the sand pit at a playground

What it’s like to be a baby

At some point very early on, when I was holding the tiny infant Owl, I wondered what love and comfort would feel like to her, and what place I occupied in her understanding of everything. I no longer remembered what it was like to be pre-verbal, to have thoughts that couldn’t be expressed in words. Without that memory, I couldn’t imagine her perspective.

Eventually I imagined myself transported to another planet, with no memories from before that time, only my intelligence and my senses and the memories I would make in that place. It would be terrifying, don’t you think? Overwhelming. And yet there would be these two constants: a big, warm, soft creature that was always there, that made food, that was always gentle, that had a scent and sounds and movements that felt familiar, even if I couldn’t say how; and another big, warm, slightly less soft creature that was there slightly less reliably and less familiarly and didn’t make food the right way, but was also unfailingly gentle and welcoming. If one of these creatures was holding me, or very close by, I felt safe from all the unknown out there. From their home base I could explore the rest of the environment if and when I wanted to. But if one of them left, especially the one that was also food, oh, terror! How could I possibly navigate anything without them there to be my safety and my comfort? How would I continue to live? What else was even out there?

Over time, I would learn that there were other safe creatures as well, although none quite as safe as the original two. Some of those creatures were smaller, more my size; they were interesting, if less predictable. And my safe creatures were sources of other good things, too: fun things, exciting things, things I wanted more of. As I got familiar with some of the surfaces, sights, sounds, smells around me, I started to notice more, and I discovered I could move my body to explore better. I started to recognize some of the sounds my safe creatures made, and found I could make sounds too, on purpose. I learned that there were things I could do when I didn’t like something, and often the unwanted thing would then be removed. Over time, the planet would lose much of its terrifyingness and become familiar, beloved — even forgettable, taken for granted.

(It is interesting to me, thinking of this life on another planet, to recognize that Owl behaves quite differently than I would [and did, as a baby]. We occupy entirely different places on the curiosity-to-caution spectrum!)

Toddler playing with a cat

What it’s like to acquire language

Owl is quite verbal, although my mother says I was more so at her age. Nevertheless, she’s constantly learning new words and new ways to communicate.

One day I was listening to Owl babble while also remembering my own experience in intensive modern dance classes during college, and I thought that learning language for the first time must be a little like what it is for us, as adults, to learn a movement language. I imagined a new planet again, not necessarily the entirely new world of the newborn, but one where all the creatures communicate not with sound but with gestures — interpretive dance, if you will. At first it would just be amusing to watch. But after awhile, you would start to recognize that whenever you got hungry, there was always this one move that the food-givers would do. A kind of wavy thing with the arms, perhaps. So interesting! You try to do it too, but your arm muscles aren’t developed to that movement, so it’s hard; your arms don’t wave, they just flop. But the food-givers do the thing they do when they’re delighted with you, and you like that. So you do it again, and again, over days and weeks and months, and one day your arms actually wave! They wave almost just like the food-givers’! They express their delight, and then they show you the wave again, and this time you notice there’s a little upswing at the end. Huh. That’s more complicated than you realized; turns out you were only getting the first part right. Now what are the mechanics of that upswing…

Toddler in red sunglasses

Cataloguing the new planet

Since last October or thereabouts, Owl demonstrated herself capable of conversation (such as it was). Her early conversations often centered around one property that interested her, followed by cataloguing (and confirmation) of all items demonstrating this property. In other words, they went like this:

O: Nat.
Parent: Cat.
O: Poot.
P: Cats poo.
(O nods approvingly.)

O: Owl. Poot.
P: Owls poo.
(More nodding.)

O: Buht. Poot.
P: Birds poo.
(O beams.)

O: Buht. Poot.
P: Yes, birds poo.
O (looking at P intently): Buht. Buht.
P: …
P: Bears?
(O nods vigorously.)
P: Yes, bears also poo.

O: Apple.
P: Apple? Apples don’t poo. Fruit doesn’t poo.
(O stares at P. P lists every kind of fruit they can imagine, followed by “doesn’t poo”. O smiles.)

O: Eeeee.
P: Airplane. Airplanes don’t poo.

We had similar conversations about swimming, and about what things have eyes, or ears. I guess if I were on another planet I would also feel a great sense of accomplishment at learning whether things pooped or had ears. I doubt she finds it particularly urgent to categorize all these things — after all, it has very little conceivable bearing on her day-to-day life whether bears poo — but it must give her a good feeling of mastery over the large, wild world.

As Owl has gotten older and ever more independent, it’s become more possible to come up with other metaphors that are more firmly rooted in regular Earth society, rather than outer space.

Toddler climbing on a rock

Cooking together

Last summer, I bought Owl a learning tower, and since then I will often stand her in it so she can watch (and “help”) me cook or bake. It’s a fun activity for both of us. I get to do something I enjoy, and she gets to participate in something grown-up and intriguing.

I remember being a rather impatient kid, when adults would demonstrate things to me, because their brains always seemed to work slower than mine, and I wanted to move on and get to the good stuff faster. Of course I’m remembering a much later stage of childhood than where Owl is, but still, I was a little surprised by how content she has been mostly to watch my actions, and only to participate occasionally and in very small ways. I might go through an entire recipe to bake cookies, for instance, only letting her scoop the flour into the bowl and smell the vanilla and cinnamon before adding them. Why is the process still interesting to her? Why does she seem so ready to just stand and watch the rest, without any hands-on participation?

After a few months of cooking together, I realized that for her, this is probably equivalent to Thomas Keller or David Chang or Grant Achatz coming to me and saying, hey, want to come into the kitchen and watch me make something? I wouldn’t think, well, only if I can do it alongside you — no way! I’d be thinking, oh my gosh, what an honor, I have no idea how you do this magic that you do, thank you so much for asking, I’ll stay out of your way and just observe, wow, I’m so excited! It would be a treat, and even more so if Chef trusted me enough to let me pour something in, or thought of me enough to offer a taste now and then.

Toddler eating at the table

Playtime, learning time, work time

Here’s a part of parenting I didn’t expect: that by and large, at least at the moment, I don’t enjoy playing with Owl. I’m the oldest of three sisters, and the youngest is ten years younger; I’ve had a lot of organic experience teaching and playing and guiding young kids, and I adored playing with my nephew when he was a baby. I just assumed I would love playing with Owl, and I did, when she was an infant. But as she’s gotten more independent, and has reached the stage of wanting my participation in a more repetitive way (reading the same book many times in a row, for instance), I just don’t want to actively play with her. This is not to say that I never do play with her, or that I hate it all the time, but a lot of the time, I’m sorry, it is boring AF.

I read a post a few months ago that laid out a reason for why that would be, and it makes a lot of sense. Kids play to learn and to work things out about the world. It’s interesting to them because it’s all new and relevant to their lives. But we, as adults, have already gone through that process and so playtime isn’t important to us in the same way as it is to our kids — or, rather, the kind of playtime they value is not the kind that has meaning to us. This isn’t to say that it’s somehow regressive if an adult does enjoy playing with a kid, but it seems safe to assume that the adult is probably not fascinated by the actual process of, say, opening and closing the playhouse door over and over again; they’re probably taking pleasure and interest from watching the kid’s own process, or from momentarily escaping the responsibilities of adult life, and so forth.

Moreover, I take a very hands-off philosophy toward playtime. Even before I started reading more about RIE and taking Owl to a weekly RIE play group, I felt strongly that playtime was to be initiated, structured, and carried out by Owl herself, and not by me. It’s because I was always such a “good” kid, so eager to follow directions and do things “right”, and I’m convinced I’m a less inventive artist because of it. And I was a very sensitive and observant kid, the kind you really don’t need to tell or show twice, so I am all too aware of how a grown-up can take command of an encounter even without trying to play teacher. Kids are already wired to look to their caregivers for instruction; I didn’t want to reinforce that dynamic any more than necessary. Really, who cares how she plays with a puzzle or a set of cars — surely one way of playing with an object isn’t intrinsically more valuable; surely the value lies simply in the act of play itself? There is a line of thinking that holds that children’s independent play ought to be considered, even called, their work, and I believe that. It serves the same purpose for them as fulfilling work does for us.

Toddler wearing a hat and lifting up a long thin stick

Anyway, after many hours of sitting through Owl playing mostly independently near me — but having to stay there to supervise and occasionally help when something got tricky — and being bored out of my mind, I realized that for me, watching Owl play is basically like watching Erik work. (I mean, it is her work.) He doesn’t work in a field that interests me, so it’s the exact opposite of a famous chef asking me to join them in the kitchen: why the hell would I want to? Not to say there’s nothing that would interest me about it. I’ve never been to Erik’s office before, so I wouldn’t mind poking around it; I’d like to see what he’s like in meetings; I like to hear him talk about how things are going, and I might not even mind watching him tick away at his laptop for twenty minutes or so at a time. But actually sitting there with him, hour after hour, day after day? What would I be getting out of that? And that’s exactly how I feel about watching Owl play, day after day, while being deprived of all the other things I could be doing.

I used to feel like there was something wrong with me for not enjoying hours of playing with Owl, but now I feel fine about it. It makes sense. She has her work, and I have mine. I’m still lucky enough to get to watch her every day if I want to, so to step away for an hour or day or even a week at a time is no hardship. As Staceyann Chin tells her daughter Zuri in this charming video, it’s good to separate and do our own things, because then we have something new to share when we come back together.

Art supplies on a table in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco