When Your Child is a Stranger...

parenting unmet expectations child stranger

It is not often talked about in parenting how our children come to us as strangers.  We don’t know what they will look like, what their interests will be, or who they will grow up to be.  We welcome our children into our families as strangers.  We can prepare for them physically by making space, preparing a place for them to sleep, and prepping clothes and diapers for them to wear, but there is only so far we can go in preparing from them mentally. We mentally hold conscious and unconscious expectations for what parenting our child or children will look like.  Our ideas of who they are do not always come true. When that happens, there is a sense of loss.  Loss of the parent you expected to be, and loss of the child you expected to have. However, there is also an element of surprise in the strangeness of our children that can produce joy and pride.

child is a stranger liminal space counseling

Experiencing your child as a stranger and the losses that come with parenting may not be something you have considered. You may feel you know your child well.  It may have taken some time, but you figured out what his different cries mean.  You know her smell and how her little hand curls around your finger.  His little expressions become familiar and you are able to identify his emotions.  You know which toy she likes the best.  You are right, you do know your child well and you are an expert on him. But, coupled with the knowing, there is also a sense of not knowing.  There is always more to know and discover about the stranger that is your daughter or son as their personality unfolds and they develop their own identity.  You find yourself wondering who she is and who will she become? Will she be a soccer star?  Will he create amazing art?  Will learning come easily to her?     

As you get to know your child more, you may be surprised and even disappointed by some of the parts of them that show up.  Maybe you dreamed of long walks around the lake wearing your baby in a carrier, only to discover he hates the carrier and screams whenever you have tried it.  Perhaps you have fond memories cuddling your mom and thought your child would be the same.  But she won’t sit in your lap for more than a minute and prefers some space between you.  You had dreams of family road trips, but your child detests the car and gets car sick.  You thought you would be the parent that fits the baby’s schedule around your schedule.  But you find yourself on on house arrest everyday for morning nap time.  Welcoming your child in all their strangeness can sometimes be exhausting and involve loss.  Loss of the identity of the babywearing parent, the mama with the cuddly baby, the adventurous road-tripping family, or the flexible, unscheduled parent.  Loss of the dreams you had watching soccer games or braiding hair.  It is okay to feel the losses. To grieve those expectations that did not materialize and remain unmet.  To experience the sadness as you witness your friend babywearing her cuddly daughter as she is preparing to leave for an impromptu road trip.

henri nouwen quote our children are guests

But you don’t have to stay in the sadness.  Because even though your child may not meet all your expectations, they also can surprise you in some amazing ways.  Take the time to nurture these surprises and feel the joy and pride it brings you. Take credit that you are doing a good job raising your child. You are indeed the parent they need, even it it feels strange at times. Maybe your child isn’t coordinated enough to be the basketball star you thought they would be, but they are an amazing writer.  You may not know much about writing, but you can welcome that gift in your child in all its strangeness and give them the space and tools to let it blossom and grow.

So lean into the strangeness and the surprises of parenthood. Author Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Our children are our most important guests, who enter into our home, ask for careful attention, stay for a while and then leave to follow their own way.”  So be curious about who they are, giving careful attention to the strange things about them that initially surprise you.  Live in the liminal space, the in between space, of intimately knowing your child and of experiencing them as a stranger. Feel the losses and feel the joys.