School Didn’t Prepare Me for Parenting

Zibby Owens

I’ve been in the ER a lot lately. With four kids, any day one of them isn’t sick is a good day. I’ve had a lot of time to sit and stew while waiting for endless tests and treatments. Here’s what I’ve realized: school didn’t prepare me for parenting. At all. Sure, I learned enough to help my big kids with their math homework, so that’s nice. But the real things that help in a crisis? Not so much. Forget my useless B.A., M.B.A. and good grades. Here’s what I wish I’d learned instead.

  1. How to read an ultrasound.

It starts the moment you see you’re going to be a parent: a feeling of complete inadequacy. The white-coated technician wielding the ultrasound probe with the gravitas of a judge’s gavel knows what she’s looking at in the black and white swirly sea on the screen. Somehow, she sees a baby. I see fuzz. I took a lot of art history classes in college. I spent hours standing in 200-year-old stone halls in front of walls of images, memorizing the artist, the date, the place. Let me tell you: the fact that I can tell the difference between a Rubens and a Rembrandt means absolutely nothing compared to this tech’s gift of differentiating between an arm and a penis.

2. How to diagnose anything.

Why didn’t I go to med school?! Oh wait: because I got a C in biology in ninth grade and still haven’t recovered from the hit my GPA took. If only I’d been interested in organic chemistry instead of the art of the personal essay. Instead of google-ing symptoms on my phone in the middle of the night with one hand, while applying a cold compress to my son’s burning forehead with the other, I might be able to diagnose him. Heal him. Relieve him of some pain. This fever. If only I’d spent my twenties dissecting cadavers and studying for the medical boards instead of watching “ER” on Thursday nights after wasting time learning how to brine a chicken in cooking class (which, by the way, I have never once attempted to do since), then maybe I could tell my son what was wrong and relieve his anxiety.

3. How to detect dyslexia, any learning disorder, or a mental illness.

I actually was a psychology major. At Yale, I was on the “intensive track,” on my way to becoming a clinical psychologist. I ran my own study on the application of social comparison theory to eating situations for the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. (Shocker: the more you compare what you eat to those around you, the higher the likelihood that you have an eating disorder, depression or low self-esteem. You’re welcome.) I coded the number of times a mom said “yum” when giving her toddler a snack for a grad student’s study. I learned about social and personality psychology, addiction in the brain, statistics. But can I effectively distinguish the difference between dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD, or depression in a kid who seems stressed at school? Nope. Where was the class in figuring out exactly what’s going on with my child, how to find the right people to identify it, and what to do to treat it?!

4. The difference between teaspoons and milliliters.

Maybe I did learn this, but I can’t remember how to convert the liquid levels when I’m administering medicine, squinting at the Children’s Motrin label. How much friggin’ medicine does this kid get?! Clearly the box manufacturers are not in their forties like me and can see the almost invisible font whereas I find myself squinting and straining to see both the dosages and the raised lines on those little plastic cups. I mean, really. There must be an easier way.

5. How to assemble anything.

In middle school, I cobbled together a bookcase in wood shop. I can still smell the shavings, hear the sound of the saw, feel the pride I felt in lugging home this new piece of furniture and showing it to my parents. Two shelves. I thought I was a genius. That’s about the extent of my building aptitude. As a parent, I’m expected to know how to build a Vampirina castle that I.M. Pei apparently designed. I unfold the directions with A, B, C and D marking off the steps and know I’m eff-ed. I can’t figure this out! What’s wrong with me? My older son now assembles everything for the little kids. I just relieved that my days wrestling with a baby Bjorn are over. If only I’d taken a class in this!

6. The art of persuasion.

I don’t know why my little guy, age four, has chosen this particular week to assert his independence in every way. As I sat on his older brother’s bed, post-vomiting-middle-of-the-night-sheet-change, my little guy wandered in and said, “I have to go to the bathroom. And I don’t like sleeping.” Fabulous. While he stood there, backlit in the doorframe, my older daughter emerged from behind him with blood all over on her shirt, exclaiming, “I pulled my tooth out!” All this at 4:00 am. Fabulous. Then last night before bed, I asked my little guy, “Do you want to read books on my bed or your bed?” He responded, “I want to do whatever I want to do.” Lovely. Where was the class on reasoning with that kind of logic?

7. Professional organization skills.

My home is overflowing with stuff. I am completely indebted to my babysitter who happens to have the organization gene. She goes online to the Container Store whenever the coloring books pile up, the toys start rolling down the stairs or the Shopkins start spreading like fans after a Lady Gaga concert. Of course, I am beyond blessed to be able to afford Shopkins and coloring books and all the rest of it for my kids. I only wish that my brain could look into a bin of crap and see a clear order for it. Perhaps then I wouldn’t spend half my time looking for things, like that one princess toy the size of my thumbnail that my little daughter absolutely needs before camp or the little stuffed dog my son requires to sleep (“not that one, Mom, the other one!”). Where was the class on where to find things?!!? Side note: an entire semester on “how to find my phone” would be great, too.

8. Sleep deprivation tolerance.

I wish there had been a course — like I imagine they have in military training facilities — where you undergo extreme sleep deprivation and then have to come up with the most creative solution of your life to a seemingly intractable problem. Like your child having a tantrum over not sitting in the car seat. Or running away and hiding when the bus comes from camp. Perhaps, had my body become habituated to no sleep back then, I would be more functional on the 4–6 hours of sleep I dependably get now. I could whip patience from my back pocket and dazzle the kids with my fun solutions instead of finding myself snapping and crying out, “All I want to do is read you a book, snuggle, and get you to sleep! Is it too much to ask?! Can’t you please stop pretending the pink inflatable raft is your bed?!?” And then bursting into tears. Perhaps then I could be fresh and perfect when my son wakes up feverish with severe stomach pain and says, “Help!” instead of panicking.

But who knows?

Maybe none of these classes would have helped. Parenting brings with it a constantly changing and unique set of emotional and intellectual demands. Perhaps learning skills in advance would be like mastering archery, only to realize that in the real world, the target is constantly moving.

You’re screwed no matter how hard you train. The good news? You’re not the only one. All parents are in this together!

I may not be a doctor or a psychologist. I might not know how to finish a Star Wars lego project or where that lovey is. All I know is that I love my kids with a ferocity I didn’t know I possessed and that every day I try harder than the last to do my best. I can’t diagnose mono or heat rash or even figure out the best face wash for a tween girl.

But I know how much I adore, respect and cherish my kids. And that’s something that simply can’t be taught. Now where’s my phone?

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