Only evolution’s cruel genius would make the ultimate act of holding tight and the ultimate act of letting go one and the same.
Sex brings couples together. It is both holding and release. Union and oceanic dissolution. It makes one out of two, and then it makes three. This is brilliant and manipulative all at once because—you’ve got to wonder—if intercourse and procreation were not connected, would our species still exist? And so it is that, with or without intention, with a modicum of good (or bad) timing, and with the right mix of hormones, adults who turn to one another to be held tight often become parents.
Beware that the noun and the verb are quite distinct. Sex can make you “a parent” (noun), but neither conception nor gestation nor delivery is enough to make you “parent” (verb). “To parent” is to give without expectation of return. To commit yourself to serving as another human being’s emotional anchor and thermostat and gas pump. Chauffeur and waitress, nurse and audience, playmate, tutor and taskmaster.
Some come to parenting in the natural course of things. Others go to great lengths to achieve the same goal. Aids and surrogates, medications and interventions, lawyers and fees and insurance dollars. The adult who parents as a result of a spontaneous biological process may have a head start over the adult who raises a child born of her egg carried in another woman’s womb, or the adult who adopts at birth or at ten days or at ten months or at ten years. No matter how you get there, the process is the same.
Parenting is the experience of holding tight and letting go. If the child has an initial foundation of security in his first couple of years somewhere, with someone, those early biological head starts may mean little over time. What matters to the child’s emerging identity is the security of feeling anchored. Held. Contained. The confidence that he can let go, toddle across the room or down the hall or off to college, and come back to be refueled. We are our children’s fuel pumps at least as much as we are their anchors. We let them go, their tanks topped off, and then we retrieve them, dented and scraped and empty, and fill them up again.
Many parents give to their children selflessly and eagerly, but not endlessly. It can’t be done. There is a bottom to every barrel. Of course, the glue-and-glitter holiday cards, early morning cuddles, and bedtime hugs feel good. His smile of pride and report card successes and even his needy, clinging cries make you feel needed. This is certainly love, pure and simple, but it must not be your fuel. To depend upon your immature child to fill your tank—to anchor and hold and contain you—this a destructive reversal of roles.
The best solution is when parenting can be made into a team sport. A collaboration with an adult partner. A lover or spouse. A roommate or your own parent. Gender and generation and the legal standing of the adult relationship don’t matter to the child (even if they may matter to the IRS and the health insurance company). What does matter is the quality of the cooperation, communication, and consistency between parenting partners. This is coParenting.
Healthy coParents anchor and refuel one another so that, together, they are better able to anchor and refuel their child. In the healthiest families, coParents work out ways to tag a partner in when exhaustion builds and when frustration threatens. They self-consciously weave a safety net beneath the child, advising that, “I’ll talk to your other parent and we’ll let you know.” They offer one another perspective and alternatives, away from little ears: “Here’s what I think . . .” and “What if we try this next time . . . ?” They share in the joys and the sorrows, the pride and the pain. They refuel one another so that each is better able to refuel the child.