Until I gave birth for the first time, I never thought much about the fact that making a child doesn’t automatically make you a parent. To be sure, it’s a cliché straight from a public service announcement, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less true: Plenty of men father children but aren’t actually dads, and simply birthing a baby doesn’t make you a mom.
It’s different for everyone, of course, but sometimes you know you’re a parent when you experience actual physical pain when your kid falls and skins a knee for the first time (“You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” my dad always says) or your heart bursts into a thousand pieces when that chubby little hand grabs a hold of yours with purpose for no reason other than sheer adoration.
The need for a parent to nuance and finesse is never ending because no two children are alike, which means there is no miracle mold, book or philosophy on how to parent correctly, well or even close to perfect. What I’ve learned, however, in the nearly four years since I gave birth to my first daughter is that there are these rare flashes when you just kind of know in your bones that you’ve done something right.
I happen to think my parents did most things right when raising me and almost all of the time (the rest of the time was probably my fault, anyway). Like right after I graduated from college and hunkered down for a few months preparing for the Graduate Record Exam. Studying for the test consumed me, and the moment it was over I was awash with anxiety, my whole future life flashing before me dramatically.
My dad took one look at me after I came home from taking the exam and suggested we go for a drive. We rode around aimlessly for a while and then ended up at the retail store of a steakhouse, Manero’s, in Greenwich, Conn., that my family used to go to on occasion when I was a kid. He ordered me a chopped steak hamburger, which I ate as we sat in the car. I don’t remember how I did on the GREs, but I’ll never forget my dad on that afternoon and how that was the single best burger of my life.
I thought of that day, and my dad, over the weekend. A few days earlier my husband, Rick, had been animatedly telling our older daughter, Petunia, about the unadulterated joy of midnight snacks. She didn’t need much convincing; she wanted in on one. We all had a good giggle about it because, really, what were the chances we’d ever purposely wake her up to eat at midnight? She’s already a gremlin during the day; feeding her late at night would be like parental suicide. Even she seemed to understand it was nothing but a pipe dream.
Saturday night was a normal one in our house. After 8-month-old Peony went to sleep, it was on to Petunia, who required no fewer than three books, two cuddles, three trips to the bathroom, one fresh glass of water, one Dora Band-Aid, one tissue, two reprimands for singing too loudly and three detailed explanations of what we were doing without her downstairs.
At around 8:30 p.m. it was finally quiet. That’s when I turned to Rick and said, “Do you want to blow Petunia’s mind a little? You should go wake her up and ask if she wants to come downstairs for a midnight snack.”
It wasn’t totally dark outside yet, but since we were fairly certain the only thing she actually knows about midnight is that glass slippers get lost and pumpkins materialize, we weren’t too concerned our cover would be blown. We did know, however, that we were running the risk of having to repeat her bedtime ritual all over again. Still, it intuitively felt like a chance worth taking.
He went upstairs to wake her up, and they emerged together a moment later in the kitchen, Petunia’s sleepy eyes shining like a super moon, her grin as wide as the horizon.
“How about a graham cracker?” Rick asked her as she scrambled up on her chair at the table.
“Oh, sure!” she exclaimed. “I love graham crackers.”
She sat silently but excitedly like a jumping bean at the table until the napkin, cracker and cup of water were placed in front of her, at which time she nibbled carefully and sipped the water like she was at high tea at Buckingham Palace. She was playing with house money, she knew it, and she wasn’t about to blow it.
I can’t remember much of what we spoke about. Maybe something about a new freckle on her pinky. Possibly her upcoming swim classes. But the look of gratitude and peaceful delight on her face as she savored her midnight snack will be tattooed on my pitter-pattering little heart.
When the last graham-cracker crumb and drop of water were history, we told her gently, “It’s time to go back to bed.”
She paused to flash us one final irrepressible smile and then said, “OK, goodnight,” as she quietly slipped out of her chair and padded back upstairs. We didn’t hear another peep from her until the next day.
The following morning I waited to see if she would make mention of it. When she didn’t say a word, I asked coyly, “Did you have a midnight snack last night?”
“Yes, just me,” she said with a small, sly smile. “Not Peony.”
I don’t know if that graham cracker made us parents. But it sure made us feel good.
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