Gardening has been on my mind a lot lately.
Last weekend, we visited the White House Garden, during one of the two days a year they open the gates to the general public. While Chris had previously been there for a sustainable food event in culinary school, I had never been. Although I was temporarily confused by the presence of tulips in the Rose Garden (roses are out of season), I enjoyed seeing the location of so many big announcements. I eagerly peered around crowds for a view of the White House kitchen garden and tried not to be stung by an occupant of the White House beehive. Meanwhile, Sprout was completely uninterested in the plants. However, he was enamored with holding on to the black lacquered security fence. No accounting for taste!
The next day, I worked in my own garden while Chris played with Sprout on the lawn. I planted sunflowers, arugula, chives, and peanuts, all of which are new to my garden this year. Next week, I’ll be transplanting my seedlings and sprouts of tomatoes, peppers, melon, beans, peas, and squash.
Because everything relates to parenting for me, I started thinking about how starting seeds is like parenting: you need to build good soil, be willing to get your hands (and everything else) dirty, and provide gradual transitions.
I believe a gardener’s job is more about cultivating good soil than growing plants. It’s all about creating the right conditions – plenty of light, the right amount of nutrients, the right amount of water, and the right temperatures. Not too little or too much of any one element. If you’re thoughtful about where you place your garden and prepare the soil well, even a large garden doesn’t need they much upkeep.
Just like I can’t actually make the seeds grow, I can’t and don’t want to have complete control over my son. I want him to develop at his own pace, without rushing or pressuring him. I want to model and create the circumstances around him that inspire a love of learning, enjoyment of nature, and compassion towards people. I see a child’s ideal soil as lots of hugs, physical and mental space to explore, play with kids of various ages, time spent outside, exposure to arts and music, and quality time with parents and other caring adults. While parents should try to provide as much of this as possible, they can’t do it alone. Fortunately, we have wonderful parents ourselves, a strong church community, activities offered through the town, and friends that support us. As with a garden, we hope a thoughtful approach and hard work up front will pay off later in a capable, caring kid.
In both cases, building good soil involves getting your hands dirty. My gardening style is literally earthy – I’ve always enjoying playing in the dirt. I don’t wear gardening gloves because they make me feel clumsy. Sometimes rather than use a trowel, I scoop potting soil out of the bag with my hands. After I garden, my hands and nails always have dirt ground into them.
Similarly, you can never escape the mess as a parent. Sprout has peed on me, sneezed ground bison on me, sprayed tomatoes and beef on me while blowing a raspberry, wiped snot on my shirt, and caused me to get poop on my hands. He has bit me on the nipple, knee, and arm. I’ve wiped drool off of his chin more times than I can count and have already committed the ultimate mom sin of using own spit to clean his face. (I swore I never would!) I’m far too familiar with the sticky pink goo that is Ora-Gel. I’ve looked like the walking dead after near-sleepless nights. I’ve been in my pajamas far too late in the day and changed into them far too early in the evening. Not that I was ever fashionable, but pumping and nursing drive a surprising amount of my wardrobe choices. I happily sit in the grass, watching Sprout rip up weeds and inspect leaves. Getting dirty is what we do around here.
Lastly, I think we need to respect the cycles and transitions of nature and children. When you raise seeds in early spring, you need to harden them off before you transfer them to the soil. Inside, they stay one temperature with consistent watering and light. If you take them from that controlled environment and plant them outside without first exposing them to the elements – sun, wind, temperature changes – they go into shock. They then die or are weaker than they would be otherwise. Like the baby plants, kids also need to be at first very protected then slowly exposed to the real world before adulthood. That small amount of exposure and gradual transition makes them far more resilient in the face of difficult situations.
Approaching change as a series of slow transitions works for less dramatic changes too. While it took about six (hard) months, our sleep training approach of moving from nursing to rocking to holding to being present and then to laying him down by himself has paid off. We made it through with a minimum of crying (albeit a lot of whining). Now, he’s asleep within 10 minutes and usually only wakes up once a night. Similarly, we think he’ll do pretty well when we go to Disney World this summer because he’s used to the busyness of the city and crowds of people. While some people refer to these in-between steps as a crutch, I would rather supply him with a crutch and transition away from it than have him fall hard on his face at first and be discouraged from trying again.
While most of the plants in my garden only last a season, how I treat Sprout will last a lifetime. Thankfully, he’s pretty forgiving and there are always more opportunities to get down and dirty.