10 Things I Swore I’d Never Do As A Parent—And What I Learned From Doing Them Anyway
Saoirse and I are sitting in our car in the emptying parking lot of the Glenville Courthouse. We’ve driven an hour to attend the trial of Joshua Rockwood, a local farmer who’s been accused of animal neglect—falsely, I’d say.
I thought the dentists were ignorant when they suggested fluoride toothpaste.
It was our fourth trip since March. Once again, we’d watched a young farmer lose a productive day in the height of the growing season to murmurings between attorneys and a judge. In the estimation of farmers and local food advocates nationwide, this is all a result of a series of inappropriate, misguided, and patently wrong allegations. The ordeal began in winter and has been drawn out with no resolution in sight.
Everyone else has left the courtroom and headed home for the evening. Only Saoirse and I remain. Four different warning lights appeared on our dashboard in the last five miles of our drive here and when I pulled over the oil dipstick came up bone dry. I am leery to make the journey home without an escort. We are waiting for Bob, watching the clouds slowly burn away before the setting sun.
“I’m hungry,” Saoirse tells me. I have nothing packed. The closest place for food is a chain restaurant.
“You’ll have to wait to eat ’til we get home.”
“That’s a long way off!” I can tell by her cheery tone that she has a plan. She rummages through her knitting bag. “So how about I have a little snack instead?”
She smiles and shows me a tiny bite-size Snickers bar that she has squirreled away from a birthday party she attended in March. I frown. “Wanna sniff?” She tempts me by holding the tiny candy under my nose. I sigh.
“What’s the matter?” Saoirse says.
“I used to have so many ideas about how I was going to be the perfect parent.”
“Like not letting my kids eat candy bars.”
“Not taking you to Disney World.”
“We paid for it ourselves.” That was true. The kids had worked hard to earn that cash.
I stare out at the clouds, watching as they turn a candy-floss pink mixed with a pale tangerine that makes me think of orange Creamsicles. She waits for me to say more. But I don’t.
“That’s not so bad, Mom. You’ve only gone back on two things.”
“Ha! You have no idea how long the list is!”
“We’re not going anywhere. Tell me.”
Where to start? I wonder just how many times I can remember going back on my word. I begin the list.
I’ve gone back on so many things I used to believe.
I used to bring photocopies of articles about the dangers of fluoride to Saoirse’s pediatrician. I refused to give her the prescribed fluoride pills. I thought the dentists were ignorant when they suggested fluoride toothpaste and I would inform them that Nazis supposedly fluoridated the water in concentration camps. But then, several cavities and four dentists later, Saoirse finally landed in the chair of the most alternative, holistic dentist I could find. And even he recommended fluoride toothpaste. I broke down and bought a tube.
I can’t quite remember what all the evils of shampoo were supposed to be. The chemicals were part of the equation. Then there was this whole theory that hair naturally cleans itself if the oils aren’t regularly stripped from it. We went about six months with seriously greasy and itchy heads before I gave in and sudsed each of us up with a squirt of Dr. Bronners.
“You’re up to four,” Saoirse tells me. “Keep going.”
“No plastic toys.”
I really love all those needle-felted wholesome Waldorf toys, but as Saoirse and Ula have pointed out, none of them ever come with breasts. And Barbie does. I still hate her pointy feet and those ridiculous legs, but until some crunchy entrepreneur starts to recognize that children are wild about boobs (and justifiably so, considering the amount of time crunchy children spend latched to them), Barbie’s going to have a place in our household.
“What else?” Saoirse asks.
“This is really embarrassing,” I say.
“Tell me,” she insists.
“No public school.”
I was in complete solidarity with the home-school movement until last summer, when I began to realize how severe Ula’s vision problems were. In desperation, I called our local public school for guidance. They arranged for services to help us, and gave me space in the school library so that I could home-school Saoirse on the days Ula attended occupational therapy. I spent a third of our academic school year home-schooling the kids inside a public school. Ula and Saoirse both love going there, and they’ve made some pretty cool friends. So much for the anti-school stance.
“You’re at six.”
“No caffeine.” I scowl at the travel mug she is attempting to conceal on the floor between her feet. She kicks it under the seat.
“This one was decaf,” she assures me.
“No electronic devices.”
“Slow down,” she says, leaning over the iPad propped in her lap. “I’m trying to write this down and I can’t type fast enough!”
“We tried. I blame your grandmother for that one going to hell,” I say. “I think that’s enough.”
“C’mon, there has to be one more.”
“Promise me we can stop at 10?”
I thought back to when it all began, when I first thought that parenthood would be my chance to show my parents how much better I could do at all this.
“Natural infant hygiene.” The words roll out slowly as I taste this once-familiar expression on my tongue.
“What is THAT?”
“That was this thing where you were going to be raised without diapers. I was supposed to be so in-tune with your bodily needs that I would simply know when you had to go to the bathroom.”
“Did it work?”
“You screamed every time I stripped you down and held you over a bowl to piss.”
“So how long before you gave up?”
“I lasted three days after you were born,” I say. “And I learned you had an incredibly huge bladder that could soak through several layers of towels. But I kept going with catching your poops for six months.”
“Then what happened?”
“You had just taken a giant turd on the potty, and the phone rang. I turned my head for one second, and when I turned back, you were smeared head-to-toe in it, and you were about to eat a giant poop sandwich.”
Saoirse’s 11-year-old cheeks flush pink. I’d thought that one would shut her up.
Privately, I still think many of my ideas were right.
Bob shows up a few minutes later with enough oil to get us to a gas station. We fill up the oil reservoir and start the drive to our mechanic in the waning light. I turn the conversation I’d just had over in my mind. I’ve gone back on so many things I used to believe. A woman who doesn’t change her mind doesn’t have one, I remind myself. But there was so much value to those ideas. I still believe screen time is problematic. I still believe that diapers are a form of pollution. I still believe fluoride can be dangerous. I still believe needle-felted wool toys are superior to Barbie dolls.
So what happened? I think we start out the parenthood journey with the honest hope that we will do things right. We want to make this world a better place for our children and we want to equip them better to live within it. With that first fertilized egg came my first seed of dogma.
But children, even as screaming infants, have free wills and bodies different from our own. As they grow older, we must find ways to accommodate their needs and opinions. Privately, I still think many of my ideas were right. But then again, Hitler thought he was right too. And were it not for the differences of opinion and the free will of other humans, his tyranny would not have been stopped.
We pull into the mechanic’s parking lot and Saoirse and I climb into the car with Bob for the ride home. He knows I am tired.
“Maybe you don’t need to go to the next trial,” he suggests.
“But I do,” I say, yawning. “The judge needs to know that this matters.”
He puts a hand on my leg and gives a gentle squeeze. I don’t manage to hold true to all my ideals, but he loves me for gripping to the big ones.
We get home, and Saoirse and Ula climb into bed with me. We begin reading the final chapters of a novel we’ve been enjoying together. After I read the last page, I send them off to bed and roll over to switch out the light. There on my night table is a motley assortment of whizbangs and doohickeys that are the products of Saoirse’s and Ula’s hands.
There’s a handmade bead, a little note with the words “I love you” scratched out in Ula’s scrawl, a necklace made from an empty snail shell, and a dusty mermaid toy of needle-felted wool that Saoirse made a few years back. I pick it up and stare at it, reminiscing about our earlier conversation. Her handmade creation has a deep maroon tail, flowing hair, and a pendulous set of naked boobs that put Barbie’s absurdly perky rack to shame.
Maybe I haven’t gotten this parenting thing quite right, I think as I turn out the light, but there’s still hope for the future.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.