All The Light We Cannot Seee: Parenting in the Dark

From "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

    There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is not good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. All those Parisian mothers pushing buggies through the Jardin des Plantes or holding up cardigans in department stores-- it seemed to him that those women nodded to each other as they passed, as though each possessed some secret knowledge that he did not. How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?

    There is pride, too, though--pride that he has done it alone. That his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That's how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.

I have been reading this book for some time. I can't help it; I read fast and then slow down because I don't want it to end. Set during the time when Germany occupies France, it's told mainly from the point of view of two characters who are observant in different ways. One is a blind French girl and the other is a German boy facninated with machines, particularly radio waves. Each character is attuned to the natural world in different ways. So real and so full of life despite evidence to the contrary, the book is really hard to stop reading. Though you know it can't end well, it certainly does not stop you from hoping. 

But the above passage did stop me because I have been turning over these two ideas in my head for quite some time.

Panic is something most parents feel if they are honest with themselves. So much of parenting is good intentions set up inside a crapshoot. Combine this with books and articles and recommendations from the world wide web, we can get locked out of tapping into our own gut for fear of doing the wrong thing. And yet this single dad living during WWII is expressing the very same fears simply from observing those who seem to know something he does not. 

I often look back to my park days, days that seemed so long. I'd spy happy moms and dads pushing swings, playing, always pulling out just the right thing when they needed it- a bottle of water, a snack, a band-aid. I never had the right thing. I thought so many times that other parents aways seemed to be wearing  an "I got this" look, but really who gets it?

The narrator was preparing to leave his daughter. He suspects he may not see her again, and he is wondering--have I done enough? have I done it right? Yet he feels enormous pride for who she is now. He thinks, I have done what I could and she is astounding. 

I have been pondering this myself. Now is the time of year where pride is on full display . My Facebook feed is ripe with soccer trophies, spelling bee awards, prom poses, academic achievments, graduation announcements, scholarship claims. This makes me think of what makes my heart swell. So often it feels like whenever my kids reveal to me little bit of who they may become, it has little to do with me. Pride feels like the wrong word--how can I possibly take credit when it seems so evident that I have very little control. I have joy in their discoveries and I watch with interest in how they develop. Of course I  try to pay attention and capitalize, but in end they are individuals who will eventually determine their own path. What I think I do is provide love and a safety net. Yes, you can practice getting mad or skulking in your room. You can make mistakes and you can try again and fail again and here I am still just loving you. I think about my son's insistence about understanding a situation clearly, his line of questioning to suss out details, his literality, his astute assessments of the people that often has me calculating his age, his ability to accurately interpret a person's mood simply by the tone of their voice. Or my daughter's dogged determination, her homework completed on Friday night, her up late and rising early to get it done. Or how she GLOWED like a blushing bride upon her trip to Japan, a trip I had no part of. Her once fluttering wings now seem to be beating madly- explore! Let me explore!  These kids are part of the same family and yet their desires and how they approach the world is  radically different. Often, I just feel like dumb luck landed in my lap, an opportunity to raise two children- each calling on different reserves in the parenting arsenal. Do I have pride? I struggle with that word- it suggests I have influence. I think, in the trenches, it never feels like I have influence. It feels like a battle every single day. And then when I sit back and do my own observing I see that maybe, somehow, some molecule of my most secret hopes and dreams has dripped into a small part of them and I see, yes! You are mine and I had some part of this person you are becoming.

I don't know, really.

What I do know is that when I read this passage, I was struck by the need we have to unravel how we feel about our parenting. Fiction writers create characters to explore the heartwrenching nuances of how to care best (what is best? is there even a best?) for a child. I don't know who or what inspired the father in Doerr's book. Maybe this father is compilation of life and imagined experience. In the end it doesn't matter because when I read those words, I knew those exact feelings.

This is the polar opposite of parenting, a place where I often feel like I don't know. After carrying tiny seedlings of doubt for so long, they start to feel like old friends, part and parcel of the course. When a blossoming occurs, when my kid reveals his or her character and passion and humanity, I am dumbstruck by my good fortune for simply being allowed this front and center seat. For a full minute, maybe, I feel pride but it is quickly replaced with love which is settled, constant, deep.  

It strikes me that the title of this book can be a metaphor for parenting:  we cannot always see what will become and so we wait and weather the latest storm knowing, trusting, believing the light will come even if it has yet to reveal itself. 

Roots and Wings

In the blink of an eye, parenting takes you from this

to this

and suddenly you are putting your baby on a plane to Japan and there she goes!

I am NOT freaking about her. She is the least of my concerns. It reminds of how protective my dad was when I first started driving the largest car ever made my any American company, the ever-lovely and oh-so-popular with teens of the eighties, Olds '98. I've talked about it before so I won't bore you again, but it was large and could seat eight comfortably. My dad wasn't worried about me as a driver. He was worried about all the other crazies out there he could not control and so that large hunk of metal was the only shield he could provide. 

Lucy has a shield. She has peers and chaperones and a rich fifteen year history between Misato and Winona. 

But what she doesn't have is me. She will carry my voice, one that whispers eat! sleep! stay hydrated! be polite!  The very act of sending her shows we believe in who she is and what she can do.  My girl will be forever changed by an experience that is uniquely hers and all I can hope for is that she carries the very best bits of our thirteen years together into this foreign land and calls upon them as needed.

I believe in all of what this experience is supposedly about- a cultural exchange that teaches young people what the world has to offer. But I have done some of my own travelling and what really happens is you learn more about who you are and how you relate to the world and what you are capable of doing outside your comfort zone.  It is hard and terrifying and exhilarating and wonderful. She will miss me and I wll not be there. She will get tired and have to push through. She will not know exactly what is being said and she will have to fight to just figure it out.

She can do it and I can do it because I believe in both of us. I believe that she can take off and I can let go and we will begin our separate journeys apart.

But I can also feel sad about saying goodbye. It is just the beginning, just the first step of many where we watch how our little girl become someone we couldn't even dream she could be way back when we were rocking her to sleep every night. I would read and sing and whatever dreams I may have had seem so far away. I don't remember when I stopped dreaming for her, but it is clear she has taken over.  And isn't that just what every parent hopes for? The desire not only for their kids to dream, but their willingness to act on those dreams? 

She is flying so high and so far away, and I am more grounded than ever.