“You didn’t know what you didn’t know.”
I’ve heard this so many times in my 18 years of being a parent. I became a mom at 19, and there was a lot I didn’t know: about the world, myself, relationships, parenting. Of course, there I learned a lot during the first few months and years of parenting. For example, did you know that an 18-month-old will, instead of peacefully taking a nap like all toddlers on TV do, climb into the top dresser drawer and pull out the diaper cream, before covering her entire body with the stuff?
Neither did I, until my toddler taught me that. And never in a million years would I have thought to search “is a closed, top dresser drawer a safe place to store diaper cream while my toddler takes a nap?” in a parenting book (because Google was still a noun back then!).
But boy do I wish Instagram had been a thing back then because that photo would have gone viral.
Then there was the time that I painted her face to match the bumble bee costume I got her for Halloween. It was only her second Halloween, so she was still not old enough to really understand what was happening, but I was so excited. Imagine my disappointment when I proudly revealed her newly painted face in the bathroom mirror and was met with tears of terror. The white and yellow and black paint ran down her cheeks and I had no idea what was wrong.
I really didn’t know what I didn’t know. Until I learned.
Even though I can laugh about these situations now, they were lessons I’ll never forget. Lesson one: toddlers will climb into drawers to play with diaper cream. Move the diaper cream outside the room during nap time. As for lesson two, well, I’d like to spend a bit of time teasing this one apart. When my daughter first started crying after seeing her face covered in makeup, I had no idea what was wrong. Was there makeup in her eye? Was she having an allergic reaction? Was she too young to have her face painted? Was I really that bad at face paint? I had originally figured that I was the only parent on the planet to not know that this age was way too young for face paint, and that of course I should have known better and that she’d Halloween for the rest of her life. But as I grew as a parent and a human, and as curious self-reflection became a practice I engaged in regularly, it led me to again wonder why she reacted that way.
And here I want to pause and point out two things about my process that took me quite a long time to identify. One is that self-reflection has been really important for my growth as a parent, as a partner, and as a human. If I don’t look back at my experiences, how am I to grow from them? But in my experience not all self-reflection is created equally. I spent many years reflecting on things through a judgmental lens- harshly criticizing my mistakes, which allowed “mom shame” to start flowing in. All of those “should have” or “could have” statements that send me down a spiral that inevitably leads to me believing my life is a literal dumpster fire.
The second point is found in that little word that I placed before the words self-reflection above: curious. Curiosity is such a beautiful word, isn’t it? For me, it instantly brings up feelings of wonder and amazement and fascination- (all things that I associate with children, too, by the way). When I began to shift my lens to one of curiosity or wonder about my past actions and experiences, I could begin to more constructively reflect, learn, and grow.
Now going back to my poor, sad, bumble bee: The critical, judgmental self-reflection lens I first started with led me to the conclusion that I should have known better, that I’d traumatized her for life, this incident would cause her to hate Halloween forever, make it so she never trusted me, yadda, yadda…
But when reflecting with curiosity I was able to consider things from a broader perspective. For example, I learned in college years later that part of a child’s development at around the age of that Horrible Halloween is to recognize their own face in the mirror. This knowledge paired with my curiosity led me to wonder if her response had something to do with her development and not my shortcomings as a parent. I began to wonder that since she’d learned to recognize her face as looking a certain way, could it have upset her to suddenly not recognize it. Absolutely. Could I still work on my face painting skills? Probably.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
So, as I keep moving forward, learning, and growing, I remind myself that it is absolutely ok to not know everything about parenting. In fact, there is literally no parent anywhere who knows everything about parenting- no matter what credentials they have after their names, or what they claim on Instagram. As long as I am leading with love and taking time to reflect back on my experiences with curiosity so I can learn from them, I’m doing ok.
And, for the record, my daughter never had any ill feelings towards Halloween. In fact, she is 18 and still looks forward to all the festivities!