Mom in Black

When I was 19, Ted and some Skiffy friends dressed up as Men in Black for a movie premier.  I dressed up enough to avoid looking out of place next to them, but when it came down to it, I was not a MIB.  How did I fit into the group then?  Ted decided that he was my bodyguard.  As we came down the stairs, he softly said “left,” the way politicians’ handlers do, because politicians always want to look like they know where they’re going.  But unlike most politicians, I don’t know my left from my right unless I stop to think about it, so I headed off in the wrong direction and shattered the illusion.

I remember that scene when Rebecca and I get out of a car together, because Rebecca enjoys knowing where to go about as much as a politician does, and I’m her handler.  She doesn’t like holding hands as she walks, and honestly, I find it awkward, too.  When we get out of the car in an unfamiliar place, I point her to the store we’re going to, and then I shadow her and give her tips on avoiding cars.  I do it because my job is not just to keep my toddler safe.  It’s to help her look cool, and have fun doing it.

I keep a mental tally of ways my parenting seems to differ from what I see at the playground.  Some of the biggies:  I play with the other toddlers as much as I socialize with their parents; Rebecca has been out of diapers for several months; and I’m lackadaisical about playground menaces like falling off the low bar or that rock Rebecca’s been licking.

These three differences are connected.

I think the crux of the situation is that my world and Rebecca’s world overlap somewhat more heavily than most toddlers’ and parents’ worlds. Toddlers are capable, robust, interesting little people, and not all that different from adults, at least not in ways that count.  I’m more inclined to do things with them and treat them as active participants in what’s going on, than I am to do things to them, or to do things separately from them, or to protectively substitute my good sense for theirs.  So I like to play pretend or give a theatrical “oh no!” and jump backwards when someone blows bubbles at me, but the same attitude means that I involve Rebecca in food prep and laundry as much as I can, instead of getting her to do her thing so that I can do my thing.  It means that changing diapers felt out of step with the rest of my relationship with Rebecca, so we started pottying together instead.  It means that when we go grocery shopping, I prefer for Rebecca to walk around and show me things, instead of pushing her in the cart.  It means that we never bothered with a lot of the trappings that mark toddlers as different animals than adults, like using plastic forks or sippy cups.

By the time she was a year old, Rebecca wanted to drink and eat the same way that I did, so I figured, why not?  We try a lot of things that sound like bad ideas–most recently, playing with fire and candles–because I’m always more curious to see what Rebecca’s going to do, than I am wary of what could happen.   Admittedly, the reason this approach works is because her world and mine overlap so closely.  Watching with interest means I can provide quick feedback when she starts doing something that’ll seriously get her burned.

That last section was tricky to write, because I’m betting that most of the parents at the park would agree with me that toddlers are robust, interesting little people, but somehow the same belief takes our parenting in different directions.  So I need to give some disclaimers.

I don’t have anything against sippy cups or diapers as functional, stress-reducing objects.  However, I worry about whether their symbolic connotations feed unwittingly into a derogatory picture of toddlers as incompetent, unfathomable, and untrustworthy.  Foucault et al have argued that our everyday embodied social practices provide the backdrop for our subjectivity in a way that makes existing social arrangements seem natural and automatic.  How we conduct our bodies does a lot to create who we are as social subjects. In other words, the nuances of little rituals like changing a diaper or holding hands as you cross the street tell both parents and toddlers what kind of people they are.   In my relationship with Rebecca, I see the symbolism of these practices as being about the child’s relative autonomy (participant or passenger?), about her relationship to the world (how likely is it to hurt her?  how likely is her presence to hurt it?), and about how I expect her to behave (with good sense or unpredictably?).  But surely for someone else, holding hands could symbolize the sense of safety that comes from love and closeness.  Changing diapers could be a token of acceptance, of letting the child decide how her physical needs will be met, even when it’s less convenient for the parent.

I’ve always been in favor of treating babies as full people, but the specific content of what it means to treat someone as a person comes out of my relationship with Rebecca.  A big reason that changing diapers, drinking from sippy cups, and holding hands have taken on negative connotations for me is that Rebecca’s preferences are against them, and that blocks out whatever positive meanings they might have had.  She’s more interested in observing and imitating her giants than in anything else, and when I see her imitating us, I identify with her implicit desire to act like a competent adult.  That further shifts my values away from “babying” kids and reaffirms my expectations that Rebecca is someone who can navigate the world sensibly and competently, so I set her up to do more of the same.

I have my convictions about how I want to act as a parent, but I’m not offering parenting advice here.  Penny-in-the-slot parenting advice–which assumes that parents who put the same thing in will get the same thing out–doesn’t recognize children as real agents in the relationship.  And if there’s anything I’m against as a parent, it’s discounting children’s agency.