Hundreds of thousands of years on this planet, and we humans still haven’t developed a universal instruction manual for raising children. This is a travesty for our species, especially since we seem to do such a bang-up job of creating terrible people.
Sarcasm aside, our lack of a parenting instruction manual speaks to one important truth that applies to all parents, everywhere, from all times: We’re all just winging it. All of us. Even the parents who look like they have their shit together. Even the ones who seem ooze patience and creativity and kid-friendly crafts out of their pores. Even the ones who gaze down upon the rest of us from the high tower in their smug castle.
Even our own parents.
Every single parent, at some point or another, is making stuff up as we go along. There are no scripts, and there are no rehearsals. Our tenure as parents is like 18 years of improv comedy, except instead of worrying about making the audience laugh, we're worried about raising another human being without ruining them for life.
When I was a new parent, I had no idea how much I’d be winging it once my baby was born. I’d asked my parents and my in-laws for advice. I’d amassed an arsenal of expert-written books. I’d bought the right nursing bras and the right carseat and the right crib mattress.
You’ll feel like you’ve got this whole child-raising thing figured out.
And then I brought my baby home. My boobs didn’t fit my bras, and the baby didn’t want to sleep on that crib mattress for at least the next five months.
My husband and I had to learn how to improvise: how to wing it. I bought a new bra. (Easy to do.) We let our baby sleep in that "right" carseat instead of in the crib or bassinet. (Oops. You're not supposed to do that.)
Sometimes we had no idea what we were doing, just like every other parent out there. Sometimes, three children later, we still have no idea what we're doing.
To all you new or expectant parents out there: You, too, will need to learn how to wing it, and how to be comfortable with not knowing exactly what you’re doing.
Yes, sometimes your parenting work will seem flawless. Effortless.
Your baby will sleep through the night. They’ll smile at their grandparents. They’ll try puréed green beans for the first time and love them. They’ll stay cool and calm at the pediatrician’s office—even at that appointment where they get nearly a half-dozen vaccine shots. You’ll know that you’re doing everything right.
Later on, your kid will say “please” and “thank you” at the appropriate times, to the appropriate people. They will display patience and compassion. They will accept your rules and eat your food without dropping any whine-bombs. You’ll be so pleased with your parenting skills.
You’ll feel like you’ve got this whole child-raising thing figured out. You’ll think that “winging it” is for lazy, underachieving parents.
You will swing back and forth between these two poles of parenting knowledge all of your life.
Then there will be times where you look and feel like an abject failure.
Your baby won’t sleep. For a whole month. They’ll spew spit-up all over your boss’s silk shirt. They’ll refuse to eat anything but those tasteless rice puffs. They’ll cry for a whole day, and then you’ll take them to the doctor and discover they have a raging double-ear infection, and you’ll feel like pond scum for not noticing the infection 10 seconds after it started because of course it was an ear infection, you soulless, insensitive parent.
Then your kid will bite another kid. And it won’t be just any other kid: It will be some kid at daycare or preschool—some little angel child with an over-protective parent who’s a complete stranger to you but who now wants to ban your future serial killer from the school. You’ll question everything you know about parenting, and then out of the corner of your eye you’ll spot your kid staring at you, and you’ll wonder if they’re preparing to carve you up next to some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
You’ll feel like you know nothing about parenting.
You will swing back and forth between these two poles of parenting knowledge all of your life. You will always be somewhere in between having it all figured out and knowing nothing at all.
And some day, if we’re lucky, we’ll all have enough figured out to be able to share some wisdom with the next generation of parents.
And if they’re lucky, we’ll also share with them the wisdom that, every so often, they’ll just have to wing it.