Is there a perfect metaphor for parenting?
Friday, November 26, 2004
When the current editor of Chicago Parent Susy Schultz called to tell me the magazine is celebrating its 20th birthday, I was dumbstruck. Twenty years. A full generation. And all in the blink of an eye.
I was the editor of Chicago Parent during its adolescence, from its 11th year to its 18th year. Most of my day-to-day work involved assigning, writing and editing articles on a wide range of topics of interest and importance to parents. But secretly, I was on a quest for the perfect metaphor for parenting. For a time, I thought it was the roller coaster. Parenting certainly has its ups and downs; at times it’s enough to give you nausea or make you scream. But a roller coaster always leaves you back where you started; parenting takes you to places you otherwise couldn’t imagine. So the metaphor didn’t work. Other times I thought a train wreck was the perfect metaphor. If you’ve made it to the toddler years, you know what I mean. You can see the calamity coming: the tears of frustration welling up in a child’s eyes, the mouth contorting into the shape of a howl. As a child gets older, the signs change but the destination remains. There’s simply no way to derail a temper tantrum or a display of adolescent rage. But things usually improve after a child’s outburst; a train wreck is the end of the line. So again, I had to abandon the metaphor. Which led me to the idea that parenting is like the weather. You never know what it’ll be like day to day. Storms are inevitable but they pass. (Some leave considerable damage in their wake.) There’s probably a role for the rainy days as well as the sunny days. And if a particular situation gets too unpleasant, you can retreat until it passes. But this metaphor also failed me in the end. We have a huge influence over the moods and behavior of our children and none at all over the weather. So it went into the dead metaphor box with the roller coaster and the train wreck. Other metaphors tantalized me but ultimately let me down, too. Life in my house has seemed at times like a zoo, a slapstick routine and a failed totalitarian regime. I’ve felt like a lion tamer, a clown and a dictator. But through all of this, my quest remained unfulfilled. I couldn’t find the perfect metaphor for parenting.
Eventually I gave up. Perhaps there was no metaphor for parenting. It simply was what it was; its essence wasn’t reflected in anything else.
Then the other day, I saw a woman in the playground with a child. The child was struggling unsuccessfully with the swing. He’d kick and wriggle; the swing would jerk back and forth. But he wasn’t getting anywhere other than frustrated.
Then the woman came over and gave him a gentle push from behind. His course straightened out; he went forward and then back. She pushed again; he went a little farther. After awhile he started using his legs to pump and went higher and higher. When he got out of reach of the woman, she stepped aside and he swung back and forth on his own.
I had stumbled upon the perfect metaphor for parenting. Our kids want and need to push away from us, but at first they don’t know how. So we give them a little push; they get some distance and then come back. Over time we push them away from us a little bit more and a little bit more, but we continue to be there for them when they come back. Eventually they begin to push away from us. And though they are still delighted to find us where they left us, they need us less and are able to keep themselves in motion.
I’ve found the perfect metaphor for this magazine. Happy 20th birthday, Chicago Parent. You’ve grown up to be a fine magazine. Mary Haley, the editor I took the reigns from, taught you how to crawl and then how to walk. She instilled in you the values you retain to this day: A conviction that parenting is the most challenging and the most rewarding thing any of us will ever do; as serious as it is, it also ought to be fun; we parent best when we parent as a community and we have a lot to learn from and share with from each other. When I gained custody of you, you were a prodigy, but other regional parenting publications were starting to clamor for the limelight. I encouraged your competitive streak, ensuring that you remained the best regional parenting publication in the nation. But I also kept you true to my view of your mission: providing information, inspiration, insight and empathy to Chicago-area parents and reinforcing the importance of caring about all kids, not only our own. Susy has carried on this mission while bringing to the magazine her own vision. It’s a delight to open the magazine and see how it has grown over the past two years. It must be how the parents of my students feel when they come home from college, the same but changed. And all in the blink of an eye.
Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin was the editor of Chicago Parent magazine until 2002. The mother of Jeremy and Hannah, she also teaches journalism and is the acting director of the magazine program at Columbia College Chicago.