The Many Faces of Parenting

By MJ Ali

When I was 11 years old, I made a pact with myself. I would not have children, and if I did want to raise children, I would adopt. My reasoning for this was very simple: I did not want to contribute to the burden of an already-overpopulated planet.

I kept my pact, but I never did adopt. Instead, I went into one of the most underpaid, highest burnout professions possible, and touched multiple facets of that profession for the vast majority of my adult life.

Human services is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve been bitten by angry teens, soiled by children who would never have control of their own bodily functions, spun like a toy by a very strong autistic man, bled on by a terrified person from whom I was drawing blood to determine their HIV status, drooled on while counseling in the field as someone tried not to pass out on me, and witnessed the agony of premature and violent death. All while making just enough money, even as a director, to need to moonlight to make ends meet.

I stayed in this profession because I cared deeply about the people with whom I was working. I’ve been lucky enough to witness the entrance into adulthood and parenthood of some of my homeless teens. I’ve witnessed the resilience of the human spirit. I’ve watched as people pulled themselves from the mouth of death and turn their lives—and hearts—around. I’ve learned from each and every person with whom I worked, and I feel honored to have been a small part of those lives.

Whether I chose my profession or it chose me, there were parenting aspects to it that make me wonder if this was my way of utilizing that parenting instinct. I’ve been infinitely encouraged and begged to be a parent, but I never felt my life was incomplete without children of my own, blood or adopted. I felt as though part of that parenting instinct engaged with every individual whose lives I touched, and whose lives touched mine. And that now numbers in the many hundreds or more. I parent my animals. I parented the children in my neighborhood when I was in my twenties. I parent myself. I utilized that parenting instinct to provide meaningful guidance and the experience of safety to others.

I think parenting as a practice has a larger wingspan. Anyone—or anything—that looks to us for nourishment, safety, guidance, connection and unconditional love can certainly be found under those wings.

If parenting is bonding, nurturing, encouraging, providing boundaries and safety, unconditional love and acceptance, perhaps its concept is more universal. If we all looked out for one another, strangers and family alike, I wonder what kind of world we could make.

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