All parents used to be non-parents, at a faint point in time which none of us can really remember at all. As non-parents/human beings we had the space around us and the time required to make careful, consistent choices about ourselves and our own needs. But we are no longer this. Now we are parents. And, as we are no longer truly human beings, the question must arise: What are we? In my very limited knowledge of non-human forms of life, I’d have to say that my own personal reflections have brought me to the conclusion that an understanding of the parent-child relationship can most easily be explained by considering the example of the shark and the remora.
Remoras, as you may remember from that awkward conversation you had with a shark enthusiast at that party one time, are tiny creatures with suction mouths that stick to the sides of sharks and other large fish or marine mammals. Initially I thought that remoras used sharks to get around while sucking nutrients from their skin, like a parasite would. As it turns out, these animals actually have more of a symbiotic relationship. The remora have a cleaning function — actually eating parasites off of the shark — and also eat the shark’s leftover food, and/or feces. At least, both of these have been found in remoras’ stomachs. If you had stuck around to finish that conversation with the shark enthusiast instead of excusing yourself to go to the bathroom you might also have been aware of this interesting fact.
So initially I thought we parents are more like the remoras, then, because we are the eaters of our children’s leftovers (and potentially their feces, if you have ever incorrectly guessed the answer to the question “poop or chocolate?”). After I have cut out my daughter’s dinosaur-shaped sandwich I generally eat all the non-dinosaur parts for my lunch — the negative space around her perfect sandwich dinosaur which is constituted mostly of crust and the dry no-man’s land around the edge of the crust where the peanut butter and jam didn’t quite reach. As parents, we also keep our children (moderately) clean and parasite free, a fact evidenced by the hours I once spent in lice removal on one of my children’s heads while the other remarked, “I want head bugs too! Oh, I hope I get head bugs!”
But we parents are also like the sharks, are we not? For one thing, if I am like a shark this helps explain the manner in which I eat doughnuts (in a frenzy, and without chewing). But mostly I think we are like sharks because our children will not get off of us or away from us, no matter how much we might need some distance from them. The other day I was feeling terrible, and I collapsed on the couch with a heat pack in the living room, closed my eyes and silently willed myself to disappear. For a second I thought I might have done it, too, but then I heard the familiar refrain of “where’s mommy?” echo through the house, and then the pitter-patter of little feet (which can sometimes be a terrifying sound, mind you, and not invoke the warmth it often makes claim to). Soon they found me and, because they love me so much, you see, continued their play within a few centimetres of me and on top of me, that I might feel included too. This is convenient for them, also, because when sporadic fights break out, or sporadic needs for snacks arise, they need me close so I can meet those needs with expediency — just like the little remoras that they are. And I am quite positive that when she was a baby, S would have quite happily eaten feces, as she has always had a very experimental palatte.
When my little remoras found me, I tried to reason with them: “Hey, guys? Mommy’s feeling really, really sick. My tummy really hurts, and I just need a bit of space right now, okay?”
My children blinked at me. “Space” is not a concept they are especially familiar with. Because they are remoras, you see.
“Well, my tummy hurts, too!” Said the younger. Ow ow! Can I have your hot pack?”
“No honey. I need it.”
“Ow ow … Maybe we can share it!?”
“Sigh. Maybe daddy can get you a cold pack from the freezer? Go find daddy!”
“Ow!” Said the older. “My tummy hurts toooooo!”
And then a fight broke out between the two of them as to whose tummy hurt more, a fight that basically took place on top of me. It was a fight I was pretty sure I was winning more and more with each passing second.
And so, trapped as I felt I had no recourse but than to text Jac and let her know what a terrible, terrible time I was having, while the children railed around me. Because when you’re a parent you can’t exactly quit your job, but you can complain to your coworkers. And I DO. As it turned out she was also having a terrible day with her own remoras, like a legit terrible day, so much so that it made me feel better about my terrible day. And so, luckily, even though physical space was not an option, I found some of the mental and emotional space that I needed in that moment, before this shark-mom felt the need to rear her shark teeth and swim the hell out of there.
And so, like sharks and remoras, we parents and our children do need each other to survive and thrive, a fact which distance (whenever I do get it) always helps me to realize. I love my little suckers, and I’m glad they’re attached to me, but I also can’t wait for them not to be. I’m also glad to travel in a herd of supportive other parent-sharks, which makes things a whole lot easier, and a whole lot less dangerous for the remoras and the shark-husbands who were in the bathroom the whole time.