On the Optics of Parenting

How protest and pandemic will fundamentally change the way our children see us

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The notion of families being home together all the time now is typically expressed in two strains. One is the significant bond from having so much quality time together. The other sentiment is so.much.quality.time.together, often uttered in only half-exasperation. But there’s another dimension to all this constant togetherness that has rendered a new type of parenting “visibility.”

By and large, the grand tradition of parenting is pretty elusive. We parent behind a grand curtain that shields our behind-the-scenes prep work and emotional compartmentalization. Many of us want to project a form of parenting that offers steadiness and safety, or the very perception of it. That is, after all, an essential part of the job description. Children see their parents through an otherworldly lens that generally dictates that their mom and dad are consistently reliable, make regular withdrawals from a bank of all the right words, don’t cry, and function primarily as both snack gopher and comforting soothsayer. 

Parenting is public relations. We are keeping up appearances, managing expectations, and finessing our language to convey the right message. We don’t fall apart in front of our children, leaving that for happy hours, supportive group texts and the floor of our closet. 

In that vein, parenting is very much about optics. How are we perceived by our kids? How do we ultimately want them to see us?

The one-two punch of a pandemic and racial injustice presents an untenable parenting situation for those of us who were still trying to manage those optics for our kids. Being home together all the time now means that there’s a lot more of our parenting in the open. There is no hiding or omitting or glossing over the hard facts when we’re openly worrying about employment, face masks, and the fate of education in the fall. And now with the country at this racial inflection point, it is an impossibility to keep up the mystery and tamp down our emotion in order to tend to our children. It is a hand-wringing, culturally searing time where our parenting is at its most visible.

Never have our children been watching us so frequently and so intensely. Part of that is seeing their parents in a heightened state where there’s simply no room, reason or opportunity to not show our hand. There is little to no preparation or hiding as we assume a posture of sitting with our heads in our hands and saying I don’t know, I don’t have the answers, I can’t believe this is the world we are living in.

They see us fixated on news coverage that toggles between pandemic and protest. They observe as we clutch our chests, openly sob, and tap into own own cultural identities, experiences and even Google for answers. They see us shift in our seats in discomfort and helplessness, measuring our words only on the rare occasion when we’ve managed to grasp onto some syntax that might suffice. 

What does it mean for our kids to see us so transparent in our hurt and anger and anxiety? Likely a bit disorienting at first. But we are all tracing the dark contours of these days. The extraordinary events of these last few months should compel us to consider the benefits of our children seeing us in this new optical light. Even if that light illuminates us in our fumbling and fuming.

When we say “We’re only human,” we are oftentimes referring to our fallibility. But these days, the phrase is also applicable in recognizing that part of being human is that we should, in fact, allow ourselves to feel on the outside. Even as parents. 

Responding to this moment with care and honesty … that’s how our children should ultimately see us. 

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