Parent as a Verb

by Donna Brook

(Originally appeared in A More Human Face, 1998)

In Pathmark, I run into this acquaintance/neighbor/peripheral person who says to me in hushed tones what is so often said to me in hushed tones and always makes me angry. “You’re so good at mothering. It’s too bad you never had kids of your own.”

Now I’m not exactly alone here. Within the range of my bellow are fifteen-year-old Thandi, who needs ginger beer and coconut cookies, and thirteen-year-old Matthew, who needs soda and ranch-flavored chips, and eleven-year-old Jesse, who needs whatever I won’t buy. Not to mention the shadowy troops of middle school students past and present and the future readers of my children’s books. Lady, I’ve got kids. Or to be more precise, I’ve got interest in kids like money in the bank and joy of kids like pennies from heaven. What I do not have is past pregnancy.

So I reply to the “kids of my own” as I always reply.

“Haven’t you heard about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? You’re not supposed to own anyone.”

So I seem the rude bitch, don’t I? But something is required to balance this other view of me as so good I run around requisitioning children. Yes, Thandi’s parents returned to Durban and left her with us so she could get a better education, and she’s only on loan, and yes, I had the bad form to become a stepmother, but I didn’t kill the woman. She died of all too natural causes and, OK, I prefer to teach ten year olds over college and high school students, but I have my reasons, and I don’t have a heart of gold. I don’t even have any more time to explain this because I’ve got three kids wandering around a supermarket.

While you may have heard that it takes a whole village to raise a child, or however that goes, it actually takes a whole society, and the recognition that childhood is a stage through which everybody passes, and never quite leaves entirely. They don’t get cranky when they are sleepy or hungry. We do. Don’t get me started.

When I was eight years old, I saw a TV documentary about a family composed of children adopted from all over the place. One of those a-dozen-at-dinner families. I became an adoption fanatic. I’d sit in the back seat looking at the rain and streetlights as my father drove through the dark, and I’d list to myself all the wonders I’d share with my new formerly poor and lonely sibling. I was besotted. Obsessed. When my parents felt no pressing need for more than the two children they already had, I resolved that when I got to be a grown-up…. But by the time I grew up, I wasn’t any family service’s ideal, and I’d learned the costs of college and dentist, discovered the limits of time and self-determination. So, I meandered into parenting as previously discussed.

Now, I use parent as a verb because my friend Nell told me that, somewhere, Anna Freud wrote that the person who does the parenting is the parent. The word caretaker enjoys a current vogue in terms of children, but it reminds me of someone who trims hedges on English estates, and caregiver isn’t right either because children require a lot more than care. Thought helps. Patience comes in handy. I mean, this is about people who, if they don’t lose or destroy them, outgrow their shoes in months that seem like minutes. Let’s pay some attention to detail.

So, if I buy the only plastic tray of coconut wafers on the shelf–jumbo enormous–Thandi cannot possibly eat a worthy percentage of them before she as usual abandons them to a state soggy or stale. Ditto huge plastic go-flat-immediately bottles of Pepsi versus cans and any overpriced box of cereal that contains Dayglo pebbles. I am wavering between budgetary concerns and whining. Maybe the problem is that I haven’t accumulated enough children for modern packaging methods, or enough children who’ll all eat the same things. Kids are out there waiting to be collected like trash at the curb, God knows. And if not picked up, they will be beaten or sexually assaulted or taken to Disney animations. All worse than my caving into junk food cravings when, on rare occasions, I do not shop alone.

Alone is what’s easier. With can feel like surrounded. What can’t be fraught with guilt?surrounded-fraught-with-guilt. Are there others like me who so carefully avoided bringing one more soul into this world of forgotten souls, who got a package deal in marriage and liked it that way, who admit that they don’t feel that they’ve missed out on an essential by never giving birth but would hate a life lived always and only in one’s own age group?

Motives are never clean or unconfused. I’ve missed out and gotten freebies. Probably, to drag in that doctor and poet, nobody’s driving the car. Or pushing the cart. But we are proceeding toward checkout.

© Copyright 1998 Donna Brook