The plumber came around yesterday for a problematic sink. I don’t see him very often, but when I do, I get very nervous because I know I will end up handing over a big fat cheque of €400 (RM1,800). Just so you know, that’s worth about four nice cashmere pullovers.
It had been a while and he was especially delighted to see me this time (for €400, wouldn’t you?) He had had a son since my last clogged sink and couldn’t wait to tell me all about his new baby.
From his back pocket, he whipped out his phone and shared with me pictures of bare baby feet while recounting little anecdotes of diaper disasters.
He tells me changing diapers is not “his thing” but having been told off by the wife, he is making an effort.
I tell him that changing diapers is not something that comes naturally — and is a lot less complicated than plumbing — it can be learnt, so he was going to be ok.
In fact, there is a lot in parenting that doesn’t come naturally and has to be learnt. I remember how ill-prepared I felt when my first child was born. Okay, the nursery was all ready, colour co-ordinated from drawers to bedsheets and mosquito net.
Communicating with my baby was certainly something I had to learn. De-coding the secret language of a baby is not a talent one is naturally born with, even with maternal instincts. Does that cry mean she is hungry or bored? Uncomfortable or sleepy?
Through the experience of actually caring for my children, I found that I gradually learnt how to be a parent. And the role is constantly changing, evolving.
There are so many hats you have to wear as a parent. Some days you feel like you are on the brink of a multiple personality disorder!
I didn’t want to scare my plumber so I didn’t tell him that apart from being a carer and provider, he also had to learn how to be, among others:
> A motivational speaker: I’m doing a lot of that at the moment because my elder daughter is starting secondary school in September and I’m trying to steer her towards taking Mandarin as a language option.
> A nurse: For those knee scrapes and endless nights when the tummy bug attacks and you wish they were back to wearing diapers.
> A driver: In Paris we walk, but Malaysian parents would relate to this one.
> A cook: There is a catch here. Be aware that the better you cook, the more demanding your children will be.
> A nutritionist: Almost more important than being a cook, is making sure you provide nutritionally balanced meals. Instant noodles is a choice they make when they’re adults.
> A patissier: The last cake I made was a two-tiered layered chocolate cake with butter cream icing and fresh strawberries that was almost handsome enough to rival the one in the patisserie, because I wasn’t willing to pay €45 for the one in the patisserie.
> A protector: This is almost instinctive when you have children so it doesn’t need a lot of learning.
> A listener: When your child comes home and tells you that today she ate lunch alone in the canteen and no one wanted to play with her, you need to know when to just listen, when to call another child’s parent or to play the next two roles.
> A counsellor: See above.
> A psychologist: See above.
> A teacher: Not to undermine their importance, but not one school-teacher I know teaches such varied subjects as a parent-teacher, nor has a lifetime commitment to the same students.
> A role model: I ask myself, “Am I the kind of adult I want my children to grow up to be?” (I know I am being watched and listened to, and my actions and words will be repeated, almost certainly in public!)
> An entertainer: You didn’t think you could sing and dance and be a puppeteer all at the same time until you’ve had a child.
> Special events manager: My last event was hosting 15 boisterous nine-year-old kids on a rainy day in a 110sqm apartment at my daughter’s pirate-themed birthday party.
> A scientist: Parents observe, ask questions, collect, record, classify, measure, experiment, invent and share their ideas and discoveries all the time.
> A costume designer: I can usually manage this if the demands are quite simple, like a pirate’s outfit. If a Marie Antoinette ensemble is requested for, I play the next role.
> A philosopher: Me: “In life sometimes you get to choose. Sometimes you don’t”.
> A psychic: How else would I know my then eight-year old has slid the iPad in between the pages of a book and is pretending to read while really playing whatever an eight-year old plays on the iPad.
> A hairstylist: Apparently scores quite high on young people’s “aspire-to-be” list, so it can be self-fulfilling.
> A referee: If like me, you have more than one child, it’s a role you’re called upon to play quite regularly.
> A photographer: You feel like some part of your life is missing because you don’t have many photos of yourself as a child? Who do you blame?
> A mathematician: Which kind of helps when you’re trying to calculate what provides more value: plumber vs cashmere sweaters or home-made cake vs shop-bought.
> A laundry worker: Perhaps the most time consuming and least rewarding.
> An artist: How else would you call someone who can change roles so easily from one to another?
> A media mentor: This is a role that didn’t exist in our parents’ time but is very important today. The challenge is helping your child to use technology in creative and interesting ways beyond a game dressing celebrities and flashing lights.
> A carpenter: In contrast, this role is getting less demand. Being asked to fix the doll house is being topped by requests for a new Minecraft building tool.
> A genealogist: At several times in your parenting life, you will be asked upon to explain parts of a family tree like the connection to Uncle Jim, who isn’t really an uncle at all, but who is the husband of Aunty May who is the mother of the husband of your second cousin Jane.
Some of you will argue that a lot of the roles listed above will be played by one parent or the other, not necessarily both. No prize for guessing who plays which ones, but that’s another story.
Some roles, though, can be played silently. But these take a little practice before you get it right.
The look that says “I know I made you come to this hour-long concert but stop fidgeting and pay attention”.
Or the one that says “Take your finger out of your nose right now if you know what’s good for you” or the one that simply says “Don’t think I didn’t see that”.
A mother is generally better at this than the father. She can actually communicate quite a lot with just a look and a few gestures.
One time when my kids were just starting to read and write, we played Charades. My younger daughter, whose turn it was to mime, looked at the word written on the paper, shot her sister a look and wagged her finger. Her sister guessed correctly in a heartbeat: “Mother!”
To get back to my plumber; he took five minutes to solve the problem. I wish I had called him earlier. I had spent several frustrating days struggling to clear my clogged kitchen sink with a plunger. And, he didn’t charge me a cent.
Generosity must come with parenthood. Too bad I don’t need any cashmere pullovers.