Well hello there! Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Liz and I’m making it up as I go.
To a certain extent, I think we’ll all admit that this is true of ourselves. But this truth -- that we’re basically just winging it -- becomes especially pronounced when we become parents. And by “truth” becoming “especially pronounced” I mean that we are swiftly kicked in the junk over and over again by the utter dominance of chaos and our need to respond with kindness and some semblance of consistency to tiny beings who appear, with alarming regularity, to be impersonating coked-out celebrities.
There are impromptu 5-hour newborn crying jags, the moment when you learn that your 9-month-old is a climber with an interest in gravity and your great-grandmother's porcelain figurines, or the horror of your 2-and-a-half-year-old throwing a piping hot plate of syrupy French toast like a frisbee at a brunching stranger. Unprovoked, unexpected, and often almost unbearably hard to navigate without curling up in a ball in aisle 4 or screaming until your face melts off, these episodes are part of the deal.
Some of us find our tolerance for the mayhem of childrearing to be woefully lacking at times. But take heart, dear readers, because there are people who have gone before us who can teach us a thing or two. People who willingly live, not merely surviving chaos, but thriving, nay, welcoming it! No, not our foremothers and forefathers -- they’re good too, of course, but they were a little more liberal with giving babies whisky than we might like and thus, their advice is perhaps not as useful in this instance. No, I mean improv comedians.*
Believe it or not, improvisation (known in the larger world as “making shit up”) is a serious subject of study. Almost any funny guy or gal you see on the tee-vee has probably spent time taking classes in improvisation. What do they study? Well, lots of things, but the number 1, most important rule that an improviser must learn is The Rule of Agreement.
The Rule of Agreement in improvisation states that you’re required to respect whatever your partner creates as reality. If he or she says “Well, it’s getting late, I guess we’d better feed the dog before we kill your unicorn cousin” you know what you’re going to be talking about – there is no turning back. You say “yes” and move forward.
This doesn’t mean you’re locked in to the plan, it just means that you can’t say something like “we don’t have a dog, and it’s 6 in the morning! Unicorns aren’t real!” You have to, in essence, say “yes” and embrace what’s happening rather than struggling for what you thought might happen or what you hoped would happen.
As a mom, I struggle with this. My daughter Ida tells me that her reality includes needing to put her own coat on at an achingly slow pace or that going to the playground is a matter of great urgency and cannot wait until after another cup of coffee. While I don’t always have to just wait out the coat embargo, or forgo the coffee, as an improvisational parent, I do have to acknowledge that it matters to her – that it’s part of what she’s bringing to the table and that what matters to her is valuable in our life together.
This brings me back to the chaos. Improvisation/The Rule of Agreement is a way to positively, productively engage with chaos -- with the almost total unknown of unscripted life with another person. So that rather than drowning in an endless current of unmanageable crying-climbing-frisbee shenanigans, I can meet the always-unexpected with a “yes” -- by recognizing what my kid is bringing to the table and responding with what comes to mind -- by building on what she brings rather than tearing it down and then trying to dominate the situation with only what matters to me. We can arrive at the same place either way, but the way we get there makes all the difference in how we’ll both feel about it.
Will it get hairy sometimes? Sure, of course it will. Our partners in this endeavor (the children) have made no such allegiances to agreement and are sometimes just biologically freaking out. There is no perfect way to avoid tough stuff coming your way. There is, however, a way to think smarter and cultivate a more present way of being in the chaos.
The amazing thing I’ve noticed is that what comes to my mind when I start from an improvisational mindset as I try to solve an Ida-crisis is often surprisingly good. Some of my best moments in parenting have come this way -- moments where I found myself almost magically able to empathize, to strategize, and be patient. Perhaps best of all, improvisational parenting feels free and exciting. I never know what’s going to happen, and rather than feeling terrified, I’m ready and curious on good days. I know my role in the whole thing, and I know that I’ve got some skills to fall back on when circumstances get nuts. Improvisers often call their work and performances “play.” And to that, I say “yes.”
*To be fair, I’m sure many of these folks also probably have pretty lax baby-whisky policies.