In Oregon this summer, my husband and I hiked into a cave, a lava tube where tourists in sandals descend into the damp dark and freeze their hilariously unprepared butts off in the 40-degree cold as they stumble a mile into true blackness.
Oh my gosh. Here it is. Of course. The perfect metaphor for parenting.
It doesn’t matter how many people are in the cave with me.
It doesn’t matter how many people have gone in before me, or how many will follow.
I’m surrounded by dark.
It doesn’t matter how many people I know with babies.
It doesn’t matter how many friends can babysit, or how often my mom comes to visit.
This is different.
I’m this kid’s mom.
I recognize the elements of the cave – rocks, dark, sand, cold. I’ve experienced all of these things before. But this place is a mystery. The scale of space, my own smallness… it is scary in here. This is not a place that welcomes human life.
I’ve seen kids – snotty kids, biracial kids, nerdy kids, kids with buck teeth, kids with snacks. I GET kids.
But now I have my own kid. The scale of responsibility, my own uncertainty… I am totally freaked out. It’s scary in here. This is not a job that a person should be able to do without extensive training in lifesaving medicine, early childhood development, holistic nutrition, and mastery of at least one musical instrument.
The cave is cold, dark, barren. It’s too easy to imagine the lights going out.
Being a parent is unforgiving, unrelenting, a life sentence. It’s too easy to imagine forgetting the baby in the car.
The cave is also soooooo boring:
Inside the cave, I can only see as far as my flashlight beam cuts into the dark.
I can take one step with confidence, but only one.As long as the boys do everything they did yesterday, in the exact order they did it in, I’m good.
I can’t think about the hellscape of potty training.
I can’t even go to a mental place where puberty is going to be a factor.
Inside the cave, under those thousands of tons of rock dangling in the cold, wet air, I am aware, suddenly, of how soft my body is.
So far behind me are the days of stumbling home alone with my shoes in my hand.
So far gone is the time when my life lay safely inside a shell of youth and hubris.
I’ve been hulled.
This world is fast, sharp, and hard.
I’m in charge of this soft, precious creature.
It’s no wonder I stay up nights checking locks and buying earthquake supplies.
Inside the cave, I find a rock face veined with shimmering trails of gold. It is unspeakably beautiful. It’s like I’ve found the beating heart of the mountain. I take a picture. It just looks like rock. I tell my family about it. I use all the words. They smile. They say, “aw… cool!”
My son says, “Mommy? You’re my best friend.” It is unspeakably beautiful. It’s like I’ve found the beating heart of my entire life. I take a picture of him. It just looks like a regular Tuesday morning picture. I tell my family about it. They smile. They say, “aww… sweet!”
I don’t think the first cave explorers said, “wow, look at that gorgeous view” as their lanterns cut through the inky dark to reveal gold-laced cliffs and pillars of stone.
I think it’s a lot more likely they said, “we have made a huge mistake, and it will be a miracle if we survive this.”
Parenting is that cave. It can be “so beautiful” and “a cool experience,” to those who come to visit before grabbing a burger and heading home.But to us, those who descend into it, who find ourselves suddenly in charge of an expedition of amateurs, groping and unsure, both numb to the sight of another gray outcropping and moved to tears at the aching beauty that the world delivers to us and us alone… to us who are aware, constantly, of the consequences of a stumble, even as we lead everything, everyone that matters deeper into the dark… to us, it’s not pretty. It’s not a photo op.
It is vast. Inscrutable. Sometimes terrible.
And the best adventure.