Until the birth of my first child in October 2010, I had always thought of myself as a patient person. Willing to wait out the best of them, I imagined myself to be a persevering, not easily ruffled sort of individual. Long line at the bank? A perfect opportunity to work on mental lists, I’d tell myself. Cashier at the grocery store taking a “molasses” approach to ringing up customers? Great time to work in a few breathing exercises, I’d muse. I was unflappable; at least, I thought I was. No difficult client at work, wait or block in the road, metaphorically or literally, could faze me.
When my son, Huxley, was born, all I thought I knew about patience, and my perceived endless capacity for it, completely flew out the window. Pre-children, I’d had visions of my father’s parenting style some day becoming the one I’d naturally embrace. The endlessly patient, unflinchingly calm style he embodied so very well was my go-to model of choice. It was laudable, enviable almost, the way he’d tirelessly wait in line at Disney World, the stifling heat and humidity of mid-summer in Orlando eliciting not one complaint from him. During my teenage years, when browsing for Benetton sweaters at the mall was all I wanted to do, he’d bring along some crime or espionage novel, find a bench, and settle in, never offering up one snarky comment about the wretched Muzak penetrating the mall’s every recess or the metal bench’s unforgiving, back-cramping slats.
My father and I share so many traits that I kind of just assumed the manner in which he, in my eyes, effortlessly parented would become my own. A genetic inheritance of the highest order, I figured. So it was with great surprise, and not a small amount of confusion, that I found myself nowhere near as endowed with the patience I thought I’d have when faced with a newborn. Not even close. As that newborn grew into an infant and then a toddler, I realized I had plenty of room for improvement, especially when my passion for my child intersected, and often derailed, my passion for gardening.
I have been nurturing a green thumb for well over a decade. Even when I lived in a 3rd floor apartment in my early 20’s, a skylight my sole source of abundant light, I attempted to grow tomatoes, green beans, and squash in pots. This was met with a moderate amount of success, suffice to say. Whether renting apartments or houses, if there was a patch of earth, or a willing ray of sunlight, I could be found sowing seeds and working the soil. I love the entire growing process, whether it’s begonias or beets, thyme or tomatoes I’m tending to.
When he was very young, before his first birthday, Huxley would accompany me to the garden in his carrier. A bit of a fussy baby, I’d have a short window within which to toil the soil before his whimpers morphed to full-scale wails. Accordingly, the garden suffered a good deal that year, and we welcomingly employed the services of area farmers instead, enthusiastically buying up their tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers at the tailgate markets. The next growing season, when he was walking, was when the bigger challenges began to emerge.
There are not enough stars in the sky to count the myriad ways in which I adore my son. From the way he leans into me and exhales a gentle “I love you, Mama”, to the mess of wild flaxen hair on his head, from the intrepid way he greets new situations, to the infectious giggles he produces when tickled, he is my beloved. That said, as he began to locomote independent of me in the garden, he slowly began to thwart my efforts there, time after time. An organic gardener, I deemed him the biggest garden “pest” of them all, his wily undoings far surpassing that of the vexing squash vine borer or the mocking flea beetle.
Peppers that had not yet ripened were plucked from the vine by his tiny hands. “I got you a pepper, Mama.” Indeed, you did son. Tiny cucumbers, pea pods just beginning to show the gentlest bulge, tomatoes that had survived the blight-all were pulled from their vines, shoots, and branches in seconds flat when he was “helping” me. The sighs I produced that summer could inflate a hot air balloon, twice over.
Alongside those heavy groans, alas, were moments less laced with “grace”. There was a bit of yelling, perhaps some cursing, maybe even a tear or two (from us both). My husband even built Huxley a sandbox, situated inside the garden fence. The idea was he could build sand castles while I planted, weeded, and fertilized. While he loved his sandbox, my son loved being near me and inquiring about and “aiding” in my efforts even more.
The thing about gardening and parenting, I’m learning, is that both are constant opportunities for growth, of kinds both tangible and figurative. Both require regular attention to properly thrive. Both necessitate a willingness to learn from our mistakes. Both allow us the opportunity to learn about the gift that sometimes comes in conceding. And, perhaps most of all, both demand patience. Seeds take time to germinate, push their way up through the soil, and mature. Sometimes, they become casualties of insects, diseases, weather, or, in my case, marauding, albeit well intended, children.
With parenting, especially with first children, we are so wholly and completely unprepared for what lies in store. Regardless of how much we read, ask friends or otherwise solicit advice, we have no true means of knowing how we will react or behave when we become parents ourselves. We are ragged and tired and struggling to stay afloat in those early days and weeks, no matter how much we’ve physically and mentally prepped for the occasion.
This is where patience is so very crucial. Patience with ourselves to celebrate the tiniest of milestones in those early days (Hey, I showered today! I brushed my teeth! I washed, folded, AND put away the laundry, all without killing the baby! Boom! Rock star!!!). Later, patience with ourselves as we navigate the decidedly tricky terrain of developing a parenting style, engaging in a relationship with our children and following our intuition that the choices we’re making are the best for our particular needs and situations.
There is an aphorism my mother taught my brother and I as children. It followed a sort of call-and-response format, and we were made to engage in it whenever we showed signs of impatience. My mother would ask, “What is patience?” To which we would reply “Patience is a virtue.” “What is a virtue?” she would then inquire. “A virtue is good,” we would diligently (sometimes begrudgingly) reply. This was concluded with “So what are you going to be?” from her. “Good.” That was how she’d get us back in line if we were straying close to the edges of her patience parameters. Admittedly, this wasn’t a far reach; patience, though she required it in us, wasn’t one of her strengths.
Year upon year of repeating Mom’s patience koan left an indelible mark on me. Whether conscious or not, patience, and the need for it, was something I placed a premium on as I grew older. Once I became a parent I had to approach my relationship to being patient anew. Every day I work at it, practicing becoming a temperate parent while simultaneously sharing the benefit, and challenge, of being a patient child with my son. In our garden, I’m working on teaching him “proper” ways to grow while also relaxing about some of the harvest losses his presence might incur. While red, juicy Mortgage Lifter tomatoes are absolutely divine, so is his enthusiasm. I’ll always have next year in the garden to improve my yields, but I’ve only got the present moment to love, nurture, and be patient with him.