Friday, October 3, 2008

Warning: DON'T Expect When You're Expecting

OK, time to come clean: I am one of those hypocritical mothers who buys junk food and hides it from her husband and kids, only to pull it out when every body's out of the house or down for the night. That being said, the girls are at school and I'm heating up my Pillsbury Toaster Apple Strudel - after reading the directions on the back. Yes, another confession: I read the directions before toasting my preservative-packed, overly-processed strudel. I'd hate to make a mistake. Fortunately, I've used a toaster a time or two. But for those who haven't, the Pillsbury Doughboy offers some helpful tips:

"CAUTION: Pastry will be hot. BE SAFE - Never use a toaster without supervision and never walk away when something is heating. Toast at medium setting until hot and golden brown. Do not use a metal utensil to remove the pastry. CAUTION: Pastry will be hot."

Those Pillsbury employees sure are concerned about the welfare of my family and my strudel. They should write a parenting manual. I bet they'd be a lot more thorough than the books I've found on the market - even the iconic What to Expect When You're Expecting. I read it cover to cover, and it did nothing to prepare me for bringing home my first - or even my fourth - baby. Because anyone who's had a baby knows this fundamental truth: You can't expect anything!

Of course, as a first-time mom, I was not aware of this truth. From the day I discovered I was pregnant with Ella, I started fervently reading What to Expect and setting my expectations. I also read books about childbirth, baby schedules, and parenting; I took the hospital tour, the 12-week marathon birthing class, and the Infant CPR class; I braced myself for the sleepless nights, the dirty diapers, the teething and the drool; and I stripped my house of everything breakable, and therefore appealing to small, sticky children. In addition to my enthusiastic preparations, I felt fairly confident that my own upbringing and education would fill in whatever gaps were left. After all, I grew up in a stable and loving home, with two great parents. In college, I majored in education, and then went on to teach high school for five years. Of course, I wasn't foolish enough to believe that all my parenting prep would make motherhood easy. But I did think I was ready to make practical, common-sense decisions about raising kids. Funny how none of the books I read, the classes I took, or practices I experienced prepared me for making practical, common-sense decisions about raising my kids. By the time I completed my first three years as a mom, I'd sold all my books and graduated to professional help.

One therapist I tried suggested I try using a very strict form of "time out" in order to get my discipline-challenged three-year old to obey. The method sounded great, and even came with a handy flow chart to post on my fridge, which is perfect for someone like me who wants to follow directions. All I had to do was give my daughter a five-word command and then follow the chart as she responded. I drove home eager to practice this revolutionary technique, and I didn't have to wait long to begin. Ella was snatching a toy away from her sister as I walked in the door.

"Ella, take your hands off your sister and give her back her toy!" I paused and counted up the words in my head.

Fourteen words. Shoot. Try again.

"Ella, don't take toys away from your sister."

Seven words. Drat. Overshot again. Um, let me think about this. 'Ella, give Emily back her toy.' One, two, three, four, five, six words. Does Ella's name count as a word? I can't remember. Wait, where is Ella? "Ella? Ella???"

Ella, having successfully commandeered her sister's toy, was heading for the playroom. After practicing five-word directives in my head for a few minutes, I stuffed the flow chart in my pocket and went off in search of her. Sure enough, the old toy wasn't good enough, and she was embroiled in a new battle. "Ella, give Emily the toy." Yes!

Naturally, Ella's three-year old response was, "NO!" I pulled out the chart to see what I was to do next. It instructed me to say, "Go to the corner." I did this, and naturally Ella's three-year old response was "NO!" I checked the chart again. At this point, it instructed me to take Ella's hand and escort her to the corner. Naturally, Ella's three-year old response was to go limp. I checked the chart once more, confident I would find my solution; but nothing was mentioned about what to do with 30 lbs. of screaming dead weight. I improvised and dragged her to a corner. Then I checked my chart. At this point, it said, I was to have Ella put her nose in the corner so that her "forehead, shoulders, and toes were all in contact with the wall." I looked at the heap of child next to my feet, pulled out my cell phone, and left a message for the therapist to call me back and "BE MORE SPECIFIC!"

No, I did not expect to have difficulty disciplining my children. That really was a shock to the teacher in me, who was certain the answers could be found in a book. I also didn't expect my house to be so messy, my children to be so loud, or having fun to sometimes be so hard. I expected motherhood to be a bit more idyllic - like the picture on the front of What to Expect, which shows a glowing expectant mother sitting peacefully in her rocking chair, her hand on her belly.

But I also didn't expect to LOVE my kids the way I do. Nothing in that book, or any other, prepared my for the intense passion I have for these precious children. They might make me cry every day, but they make me laugh every day, too. There are no words to describe the emotions I feel when they fall into my arms, giggling, or wrap themselves around me for a hug. I didn't expect Ella to be so smart, Emily to be so snugly, Evie to be so funny, or Ty to be so sweet. I am grateful to God for every moment I have with my children, and in my moments of frightfully unprepared desperation, I know I can turn to Him for help and strength.

Maybe that's why nothing we read can truly prepare us for parenting. God created us to have a relationship with Him, but it's hard to spend time with Him when we're so busy satisfying our expectations. Nothing brings us to our knees faster than those children He created and entrusted to us, though. And if God sent us our children wrapped in strudel packaging, I suspect He would include the following directions:

CAUTION: Children are unique. BE LOVING - Keep yourself under God's supervision, and allow your child to be unique. Love, care, and pray for your child every day, as you build him into a strong, responsible adult. Don't place impossible expectations on your child. CAUTION: Children are unique.