Parenting: A spectator sport

File photo. File photo.

I never liked babysitting. Kids tend to be sticky. And loud. I couldn’t get them to do what I said, or go to bed. On the rare occasion I actually managed to get my charges to sleep, I would invariably find their parents didn’t stock good snacks. I wanted to want to be a mother one day, but I was afraid I would never actually want children. I shared my fears with my own mother, and she replied with a question.

“Do you like the Olympics?”

I nodded. I watch the whole two weeks of it end to end—kayaking, fencing, curling, the works.

“Then you will like having children,” she said.

She explained that the ability to delight in another person’s successes, empathize with their failures, and have patience with the boring bits was vital to good parenting. And she confessed that while she didn’t much like other people’s children, she very much liked her own. She gave me hope.

When my first child was put in my arms, I was hooked. Turns out the only drama more absorbing than my life is hers. A cousin of mine very astutely dubbed the first overwhelming months with a newborn “watching Baby TV.” Baby TV is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She breathes! All by herself! She sneezes little sneezes! She—oh sweet mercy, she SMILES! I never imagined I’d find the spectacle of a small, scantily-toothed person mangling an apple muffin so riveting, let alone worthy of 19 pictures. She was certainly sticky, and loud, and a pretty poor sleeper to boot, but I did like her very much indeed.

I had no idea how I would divide my attention and enthusiasm between her and a new baby, but with the birth of my son, Baby TV shifted easily to picture-in-picture. Sometimes the big picture was my son pulling up on a dining room chair, and the little one was his sister banging pots in the kitchen. Other times the big picture was her picking her way down the long flight of steps to preschool, and the little one was the warm fluff of his downy head nestled in the baby carrier.

Six years on, my now 10-year-old daughter and I were walking to the car after her elementary school graduation. A sob I’d been cramming down all morning suddenly bubbled up and over, surprising both of us.

“Go ahead and cry, Mom, I won’t judge,” said my tween-going-on-grown-up, patting my arm.

“I was just remembering the day we registered you for kindergarten,” I told her.

She’d clutched my hand as we walked in, pulling to slow me down. When a teacher spoke kindly to her, she was too timid to even make eye contact. Afterward I pushed her on a playground swing, because she couldn’t yet pump her legs.

“Oh. I don’t remember that.” She shrugged, and skipped away in the sunshine.

In that moment it struck me hard that my role as an observer is important. I am the keeper of memories she is too young and too busy to form. She lives the moments, and I analyze the significance, then file them away to tell her about later on. She can get on with the business of baby sneezes and gumming muffins and going to middle school. Parenting is a spectator sport, and I am happily occupying a front row seat, good snacks in hand, rooting my children on.—Miller Murray Susen