Fill in the Blank: Parenting Is Like...

This Father's Day, a new dad tries to put words to the ever-changing nature of parenting

father and daughter painting together

I’ve been in graduate school the past couple of years, and so I've been staying home with our 18-month-old. My wife is a physician assistant and works 12-hour shifts in a walk-in clinic. When she’s home, I work (or try to avoid work) as much as possible. We are currently expecting our second child any day now, and I can’t help but think of the looming chaos waiting to surround us.

I’m still new to this whole parenting thing, and as Father’s Day approaches, my mind begins to formulate half-cocked analogies for what it means to be a dad. I love a cliché analogy as good as the next person, so why not run with it?

So what is parenting like?

Parenting, for me, is one of the few things I can think of that can be placed in the front half of an analogy, and you can fill in the blank with just about anything. 

“Being a parent is like ___________.” 

Try it. Working construction. Gardening. Being a garbage collector. Teaching. Being an attorney. Zoo keeping. It seems like no matter what word(s) you put in that blank, it is justifiable. It also seems as kids age, your role changes, your work changes, your life changes. Plus, parenting is different for every single person at every single stage.

For instance, if I were to tell you that the words you put in that space, the ones I most resonate with, are “being a painter,” the word “painter” would immediately shape contradicting views. Some would assume that “painter” refers to the very constant, very literal need to remove crayon or scuff marks. Some would take a more metaphorical approach and think that maybe we as parents are painting the exterior of the child, making he or she more presentable to the public, creating curb appeal that will be the envy of other parents. 

However, I think of the word “painter” as being synonymous with the term “artist,” but replacing the former with the latter would still not create consistency in reasoning.

For instance, we all know those parents who, even though they may not say it, think it: “Parenting is like being an artist because we created a masterpiece. Now we can sit back and watch as people admire our work.”

They exist. You know they do. 

Just like painting, parenting is an ever-changing art form. We, the artists, have to constantly adapt and think about our canvas in different ways.

Then there are others who would be more practical and lean toward trite, handy stereotypes: “Parenting is like being an artist because you work all your life, but you are still so poor you can barely keep a roof over your head.”

Some might even think about it the way certain patrons of a museum or gallery do about a piece of abstract art. Just like a museum-goer thinks “Well, I can do that,” we might observe a parent who makes it look easy and think the same.

Artists might think: “Parenting is like being an artist because it takes time, patience, skill and vision.”  But while we all aspire to be the Rembrandts and van Goghs of the parenting world, some of us — myself included — often feel more like caricaturists. Skill or talent is present, but people often laugh at our work.

The reason I think the analogy “parenting is like being an artist” works so well: There are days when I feel my paintbrush can do no wrong. The strokes are smooth; the hues perfect. I, like Bob Ross, effortlessly paint perfect little happy trees on the banks of a quiet stream running through a peaceful valley. Perky, snow-capped mountains fill the background and all is right in the world.

Then there are days where I break all of my paint brushes and finger paint a stick figure while drinking my rinse water and think about cutting off my own ears.  

But that’s the great thing about it, right? As soon as you have it figured out and it couldn’t get any easier, you realize you don’t and probably never will. Because just like painting, parenting is an ever-changing art form. We, the artists, have to constantly adapt and think about our canvas in different ways.

Sometimes we find ourselves using the wrong medium or thinking about the end before we begin. And sometimes an analogy for thinking about parenting isn’t the best approach. As we await the arrival of our second canvas, those same old thoughts of doubt and worry begin to creep back in. We try to find our how-to books and begin re-reading articles, but really we are just hoping to not screw up the painting.

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