I am a parent. I have a 9-month-old daughter whom I love very much. I've cared for her, fed her, changed her diapers and spent many nights awake trying to soothe her. Becoming a parent has been a wild ride, full of new adventures every day.
Yet, according to my siblings, parents, family, friends and random strangers on the street, I'm not a parent. My profoundly personal experience is null and void because my experiences aren't exactly like theirs.
You've probably been told you're not a parent also. Heck, you might have told other people they aren't parents. All because of this quasi-tradition of saying to new parents, "You're not a parent until ... "
Some of the most memorable you're-not-a-parent-until stories I've heard include catching your child's vomit with your bare hands, leaving a child in the car on accident, having to sift through your child's poop looking for loose change he swallowed and having to wrap your child in a towel because she had a massive diaper blowout and there are no clean clothes.
People use these statements as ways to share experiences, but the statement that precedes them is insulting. It pushes that being a parent depends on a single event and that you're not a parent until you have experienced a profoundly distressing, gross or irresponsible moment.
Imagine if you were a painter working on a beautiful piece of art and looking for some well-deserved praise from more experienced artists. Yet, instead of praise or helpful advice, you get somebody who says, "You're not a real painter until you make a stick figure with watercolors." It's not helpful at all, and it's quite insulting.
When I became a parent
Becoming a parent is very personal and not something that should be trivialized. In all honesty, when you ask somebody to describe the moment he or she became a parent, it usually is a very emotional story. For my wife, the moment she became a parent was when we got that positive pregnancy test. For me, it was when my wife was diagnosed with cholestasis, and the doctor explained that our unborn child was at risk. At that moment, I would have done anything and everything to make sure my daughter was born healthy.
In my opinion, what makes someone a parent is a willingness to sacrifice everything for his or her child. It's placing the needs of the child before yourself. It's caring for another human life before you care for yourself.
So, that's why, when people tell me I'm not a parent because I haven't had a particular experience, I get angry. I understand they don't mean to offend me and it's not like they're harassing me on purpose. What makes me angry is that this practice celebrates bad parenting while trivializing that important moment of becoming a parent.
How this tradition isn't helping the world
Most you're-not-a-parent-until stories highlight a mistake or crazy incident in the person's life. These stories rarely condemn a mistake but instead celebrate it, claiming it as a part of "becoming a parent." Yet, that's the opposite of what we should want. We should want new parents to learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them. Repeating mistakes is the path to poor parenting, showing you aren't learning and evolving for your children.
We don't need more bad parents. There are plenty of those in the world already. It's actually pretty sad that we need social workers to protect children from their own parents. We, as a society, need to prevent these type of situations and support parents whom may be struggling. We need to discourage being bad parents and start focusing on helping parents become better.
New parents don't need to hear it's okay to be a bad parent. Being a parent is hard, and people encouraging us to be selfish is harmful. We need uplifting stories of getting children to sleep through the night, how parenthood is so fulfilling and general encouragement on how we are doing a good job. We want real advice and gentle guidance when we do make mistakes, not people comparing those mistakes to ones they made and telling us it's all okay.
What to do instead
This tradition is one that needs to stop. It's one of those things that people do because it happened to them when they were new parents. It's no different from hazing the new freshmen or giving the new kid at school a hard time.
So, the next time you feel the need to say something starting with, "You're not a parent until," stop and think. Will this story actually help new parents? If the answer is no, then don't share it. Instead, compliment their baby and their parenting skills. Give helpful advice from your personal experience. Talk about things people normally don't give advice about, or even ask what they are struggling with and address some issues there. Help other parents become better and feel more comfortable being new parents.