Here's the scene: My work friend Jill wants to meet my little girls, age 3, so we’re spending Sunday afternoon at the Central Park Zoo. Our group decides to sit for a hot-chocolate break, but Sophia and Olivia will not sit. Instead, they are running laps around the garden. I’m thankful to have one-on-one coverage (my husband, Steve) because Sophia is trotting clockwise, Olivia counterclockwise. I’m jogging right behind, half-heartedly yelling, “Stop, girls—wait for Mommy,” as they weave in and out of the crowd. They keep toddling and squealing, ignoring my pleas to slow down because they know I don’t really mean it (and I don’t really mean it because I know they are not in any mortal danger).
The parent I thought I’d be before I actually had kids would shout, “Okay, girls, enough!” and Sophia and Olivia would halt. That’s how it went when I was a child at the zoo with my parents. The parent I thought I’d be would never tolerate the noise, the chaos, the potential skinned knees, the disobedience.
But the parent I am ignores the disapproving looks from strangers because the girls’ abandon exhilarates me. The parent I am lets them run until they decide to stop.
Suddenly, I sense things have gone on for longer than they should. I can feel the heat from the glare in those strangers’ eyes. Surely the charm of this scene has worn thin for Jill, whose daughter wants to see the sea lions.
By the time we walk back to Jill, my joy has given way to embarrassment. I have an apology ready. But Jill grins and says, “Oh, my goodness, your girls are amazing!”
From Jill, this is a full-on compliment. She is laughing and adoring what she just witnessed, and I am struck by a notion I’ve tried to hold on to since: Don’t give back a minute of joy for self-consciousness. Don’t doubt your instincts because they don’t square with someone else’s idea of how a scene should play out.
Jill has a backpack full of paper, colored pencils (for her daughter, older), and crayons (for my daughters, who ignore them). That’s the parent I thought I’d be, one who has a plan for every situation. The parent I am is different.