I am fascinated by the sports of gymnastics and figure skating. It’s not because I have any background in these areas. I could never do the straddle roll to pass beginning gymnastics, and my favorite part of ice skating is the hot cocoa afterwards. In spite of my limited talents — or perhaps because of them — I love to watch athletes defy gravity and leap, spin and flip their way to the awards podium.
I can’t say I completely understand the scoring in either of these sports, but I do understand the oft-used phrase, “degree of difficulty.” The more complicated a routine is, the higher the possible score the athlete can get if he or she does it perfectly.
I have decided we need to apply this phrase to parenting. Every child equals one point, or one degree of difficulty. Two additional points are awarded for each child age four and under. Parenting while pregnant earns an additional point, as does parenting anyone who is not yet sleeping through the night.
Therefore, my friend Carol, who has four children — ages one, three, five and seven, is working with a degree of difficulty of 8. My own degree of difficulty, now that we’ve added a one-year-old foster daughter, is up to 5, having been recently down to 2, when we just had the boys — ages 6 and 9.
My friend Patty, whose five children are now between 6 and 12, once had a degree of difficulty of 10, when she was pregnant in addition to having 4-year-old twins, a two-year-old and a one-year-old.
I don’t have preteens or teens yet, but from what I’ve heard, they may require an additional point of difficulty, just as the very young children do. And teenage boy drivers may add even more, just as they do to insurance premiums.
Degrees of difficulty would be helpful for two reasons. First, because they would be applied to everything a parent does, they would turn small daily successes into major triumphs. “Did you see that, ladies and gentlemen? She’s going grocery shopping with her children. That’s a degree of difficulty of 8, remember. Look at that. She’s actually moving down the aisle. She’s keeping the three-year-old away from that display of sugared cereal, and handing a cracker to the baby — all this while getting the best price on spaghetti noodles and answering the seven-year-old’s questions about dinosaurs.”
Degrees of difficulty would also be good because they would be a concrete way for parents to gauge when their lives would get easier. “Hmm. When the baby starts sleeping through the night and Johnny turns five, my degree of difficulty will drop by two.”
I think the main reason I am in favor of degrees of difficulty, however, is that conscientious parents are often too hard on themselves. I’ll go over to a friend’s house who has three children six and under (degree of difficulty, 7) and she’ll apologize because there are toys on the floor and the kitchen’s a mess. But her crazy climbing 17-month-old is alive and relatively unbruised, and so is her three-year-old, who has been known to wander away from the house and down the street. Toys on the floor or not, we need to call it a successful morning.
Perhaps it’s my contact with the foster care system that also makes me want to publicly give voice to the difficulty of parenting. I know firsthand that what most parents consider the basics — keeping their children clothed, fed and attended to, all while making a living — can be an insurmountable task for some parents. I’ve seen firsthand that a parent can love a child and still neglect him or her. That the all-consuming task of parenting can become downright impossible in the face of addiction. My degree of difficulty scale did not even include parenting while in poverty, parenting while living in a dangerous neighborhood or parenting while in an abusive relationship. At some point, the degree of difficulty becomes so high that some parents give up.
And if parents are the athletes, we are also the judges. We judge each other and we judge ourselves. We judge our next door neighbor, whose degree of difficulty may be similar to our own, and we judge those who live across town, who are dealing with degrees of difficulty that we cannot even imagine.
But the thing that we too often forget as we’re balancing and leaping (and judging), is that parenting is not a competition. In ice skating, athletes may not rush out onto the ice to help each other. And a gymnast certainly may not lend a supporting hand to a teammate about to fall off the beam. But parents aren’t bound by these rules. As we acknowledge our own degree of difficulty — and forgive ourselves for our missteps — we must simultaneously reach out to other parents. We must cheer for each other and be ready to spot without being asked. And after a fall, we must remind each other just how complicated the routine of parenting really is.