I saw something extraordinary today. To anyone else, it would have looked perfectly ordinary, but it stopped me in my tracks. I was visiting a friend, and her 27-month-old son was asking for his toy tractor. Her hands were full with her other baby, so she said, “Your tractor is in the pink bag on the floor.”
And here’s the extraordinary thing: he walked straight over to the pink bag, took the tractor out, and went off happily, leaving her in peace with the baby. I realised suddenly what an achievement this was, what a change from the toddler he was before, and what a massive help this was to his busy mother: to be able simply to say something to her child and for him to understand it and act on it. It is a milestone that comes on quietly and almost goes un-noticed, but it is at least as important as the other, more flashy milestones such as his first step or first word. It is more than a milestone — it is a tool that means freedom to a mother.
And yet, it went barely noticed by either of us mothers. It’s a gradual change in a child — you hardly notice it happening. I commented on it, and we both agreed what a momentous achievement it was, and how amazing it was that we’d both barely recognised it.
It made me realise, as well, how difficult it must be for a non-parent to understand the world that a parent inhabits — the limitations, the frustrations, the priorities. I’ve run into it several times with my non-parent friends: a simple clash of experiences where they cannot understand why I do or do not do something, and I cannot satisfactorily explain. Some things, like the profound sense of freedom that comes from a simple statement understood and acted upon, can be fully understood only through the experience of having been there through every slow step of the path that led to that point. Without two years of not being understood, that moment when you finally are understood can’t possibly be so important, or the sense of relief so intense. What is obvious to a parent probably isn’t to a non-parent. What is extraordinary to a parent is probably ordinary to a non-parent. For a moment, it was incredibly clear how different the two worlds are, how wide the gulf is, how hard it can be for one to understand the other.
And then, suddenly, ordinary life came crashing back into place. The tractor had collided with a shin, the baby had woken up with a start, and it was all go again. The moment was over. The subtle extradinarities of parenthood were steamrolled by its not-so-subtle ordinary requirements.